One of the most popular theories to explain as to why large, exotic cats roam the UK, concerns the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act. During the 1960s and early '70s it is a known fact that many people across Britain owned 'big cats', as pets. However, whilst many animals, especially puma kittens and black leopard cubs, were released around the time (despite the fact that many researchers believe this is not the case, bizarrely), and simply explain the current populations of cats in the UK, there are also an abundance of stories from centuries previous which suggest that leopard, puma, lynx, were inhabiting the woods. Of course, such animals may have escaped from private menageries, but the older reports are far more important with regards to piecing together a puzzle which the press, and some researchers believe is a modern jigsaw of mystery - but it isn't. Recently researcher Richard Muirhead discovered a fascinating clipping from the Blackburn Standard of 8th June1836 which states:
'LEOPARD HUNT – On Monday last a strange-looking animal having been seen in the fields near Wheathamstead, Herts, a small party went in search,supposing that it was a deer which had been scared out of Brocket-hall-park by the gloomy looks of its noble occupier. Great was their surprise at finding in a hedge a large leopard, which stole away, followed at a respectful distance by the sportsmen, who were only armed with fowling-pieces loaded with swan shot. As it was endeavouring to escape it met a labourer at work in the fields whom it attacked and dangerously wounded, but his life was saved by a mastiff fastening on the leopard, and enabling Mr Norman Thrale to approach within a few yards, and disable it with a discharge of swan shot. It was shortly afterwards destroyed, and was found to weigh 14 stone. It had breakfasted off a dog, whose head was found. It is not known where the beast had escaped from.'
In Kent there are numerous reports of large cats on the loose dating back as far as the 16th century. Some, as already mentioned, have escaped from a private collection, but such reports are not scarce, and suggest that large cats have been with us a lot longer than many realise. The Victorian travelling menageries often lost animals, and not all were recaptured or shot dead.