The recent Essex lion farce has made a slight mockery of 'big cat' research in the UK. We're used to the blurry images of domestic cats believed to be lions, and we can't do anything about the news reporters arriving on the scene hoping to interview the elusive beast, but whilst the police presence was in force as an act of health and safety, to some extent this in turn created a witch hunt. It was the usual stuff really, silly season all over again, bringing to mind the past 'horrors' and drama of the Winchmore Hill lioness (1994), the Shooters Hill cheetah (1960s), the Edgware tiger (1980s), the Sydenham leopard (2005) et al. As usual there was no marauding cat to be found - the initial rumours amid some terrible photographs and media frenzy were that a lion had escaped - but from where ? - after several witnesses, albeit seemingly from a distance claimed to have spotted Africa's monster cat. The phone began to ring, emails began popping in - newspapers were eager for an interview in hope that we could get to the bottom of a...well, non-existent mystery...
It was claimed that a lion had probably escaped from a circus that had been visiting Clacton. Or maybe someone had kept one as a pet and it had escaped, or possibly been released. And yet no maned wonder surfaced, but still the police and the press scoured the woods not once realising that if a lion was prowling around it would show itself. Some opinions were that the animal had in fact been a puma as there were some eye witness descriptions which spoke of a tan-coloured cat with a white chest and a long thick tail - characteristics most unlike a lion. Of course, the sceptics, naysayers and mickey-takers were already posting the predictable comments on the newspaper blogs, but still the newspapers and radio stations were caught up in the feline frenzy, somehow expecting a lion to turn up dead or drugged.
The facts were clearly non-existent. For instance, if a lion had escaped from somewhere it would've stuck out like a sore thumb. If a lion was roaming around Essex it would have sought a pride, and taken very large, and possibly human prey. Police scoured the hedgerows and thickets, but they were too many minutes late on the scene because if this cat had been a puma it wouldn't have stayed around and would have vanished like a ghost. Of course, there was never the possibility that the beast had been a domestic cat...even though it was. In every case we've ever known of a lion, tiger, or cheetah rumoured to be on the loose, the animal in nearly every instant has turned out to be a domestic cat and in those unique cases of real big cats being seen, they are nearly always recaptured by use of tranquiliser dart, or shot dead...that's why reports of lions, tigers, cheetahs and even jaguars in the UK have to be taken with a pinch of salt. We're just confused as to how so many people could claim to see a lion ?
The photographs that appeared in The Sun etc most certainly did not show anything resembling a lion - yet the witnesses claimed they'd sat and watched the animal for quite a while as it groomed itself and basked in the afternoon sun. Some people said they heard the beast roar, but the fact the police called off the hunt proved that there was no lion around. Even so, Essex is not without its mystery. Just a week previous we received a report of a puma-like cat from the county, the report never made the newspapers and we're pretty sure that even if the police had heard about it they wouldn't have sent helicopters out, and the reason for this is simply because the police probably do get frequent reports of black leopard, puma and lynx, and are probably so used to these reports but a sighting of a lion or tiger is a different kettle of cat so it was their duty to investigate.
Some would argue that the Essex lion scare showed the police wasting time and resources, as they've done several times previous, especially regarding the white tiger scare in Hampshire a short while ago, but Essex has a long history of 'big cat' sightings, from Brentwood to the Ongar Marshes, and from Witham to Epping Forest. Of course, the lion story has done some damage to the research being conducted because until the story simmers down, any genuine sighting will be tarred with the brush that so badly tainted the lastest farce.