Sunday 18 March 2007

How did 'big cats' get here ?

Sightings of 'big cats' in the UK have been documented for centuries, but not until the explosion of the 'Surrey puma' reports did the press really start to take an interest. Before that particular flap in the 1960s, reports had been sporadic, despite the fact that mentions of exotic cats in the wilds had dated back to the 1500s and probably before that.

Firstly, the Romans imported thousands of cats, including the puma and the leopard, used in their amphitheatres to fight slaves for the pleasure of the public. Many cats must have escaped during this period. Trickles of sightings must have taken place, without ever being documented. Put this kind of origination alongside private zoo's, circuses, travelling menageries, mascots, and smaller cats used on boats to kill vermin, and we can suddenly start to see where many of these cats came from.
One of the most popular theories regarding 'big cats' in the wilds of Britain is that they've all recently escaped, but this is completely untrue. Only a small percentage of animals in the wilds as of now, would have recently escaped or been purposely released by owners.
The majority of the current 'big cat' population originates from the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Large cats were novelty pets for the rich, famous and also the general public who could purchase a leopard, puma etc, from pet shops, newspapers and even Harrods of London! However, in 1976 when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was released, many owners were forced to give their pets up due to the license fees they were asked to pay. However, not all cat owners were taking their animals to zoo parks, but instead dumping them in the countryside. And, not even the zoo's could provide ample housing for so many unwanted cats and so many owners were turned away from locations such as London Zoo, once again forcing owners to release their felids into the fields and woods. that particular influx caused an explosion, as such cats merely added to the smallish yet elusive number of animals already inhabiting the local woods.

No-one knows how many cats were already living in the UK, and there is no official statistic today regarding just how many cats, and differing species prowl our back yards, but there is a healthy abundance and a variety also.

The travelling menageries were certainly to blame for the initial explosion in the Victorian era, as shambolic exhibitions patrolled the British Isles losing all manner of strange and exotic animals from birds to cats to the occasional hyena, and what with rickety roads playing havoc with the wheels of wagons and coaches, all manner of exotic spillages would have occurred. There were also one or two zoo parks blamed for inadequate facilities pertaining to the up-keep of such specimens. Large cats such as puma and black leopard were also brought over as mascots during the wars, and rumour has it that such animals weren't taken back but he pilots etc who brought them over. Smaller cats such as Jungle Cats were used on boats for 'ratting', an easy way to control vermin.

This, when all put together is the simple explanation for one of the biggest non-mysterious mysteries of our time! However, such a phenomenon isn't exclusive to the UK, with Australia (marsupial country only), the USA, Italy, France, etc, all home to an abundant population of elusive predators. It's a common theme.

The Romans

So, where did these mystery maulers come from ? Well, the Romans invaded Britain around two-thousand years ago. The Scimitar Cat became extinct more than five-hundred thousand years ago and the cave lion died out in the United Kingdom some fifty-thousand years ago, the last leopards to inhabit Britain died out some twelve-thousand years ago during the last Ice Age, so such beasts most certainly are not survivors from then. The puma meanwhile has never been a species indigenous to Britain. Whilst Great Britain once sustained a variety of species of felid, only the wildcat, confined to Scotland, survives.
A basic timeline of events shows that Julius Caesar headed the first invasion
in 55 BC, but withdrew his advances. A century later the Romans invaded again in AD 43 (after the birth of Jesus), when they landed at Richborough, in Kent, where the remains of an amphitheatre exist. Before their invasion areas such as London did not exist. It was they who founded it, in AD 50, calling it Londinium. An amphitheatre was discovered in the city in 1988 and is now open to the public. Other amphitheatre remains can be found at Chester, Colchester and Gloucestershire, namely Cirencester, formerly the Roman town of Corinium, which is Roman Britain’s largest amphitheatre. The Romans conquered Wales, there is an amphitheatre at Caerleon, Gwent, and the north in AD 70 and Scotland in AD 140, where an amphitheatre is situated at Inveresk, Edinburgh. They did not withdraw from Britain until AD 401. During this time however, they had the amphitheatre, their centre of entertainment, a bit like television is for much of today’s general public on a Saturday evening!
In these amphitheatre’s, Roman citizens would flock to watch gladiators fight wild animals such as bears, lions and leopards. Often, the fighters who took on the beasts were slaves or
criminals being punished for their crimes. In many cases, these gladiators would die at the paws of an animal such as a big cat. Such a spectacle may well have influenced the more modern travelling menageries, where strange and exotic species were collated from remote regions in order to attract the curious public.
The sheer gore of a Roman gladiator battling it out with a starving leopard would have provided entertainment to thousands of roaring citizens. The volume of animals used in such battles is quite incredible and many would have been slaughtered in the most barbaric of fashion. The Endangered Species Handbook writes:
“The tradition of killing animals for pleasure has a long history in Asia and Europe. So popular was hunting in ancient Rome that mosaics and paintings often depicted this pastime as a heroic activity. Slaughtering animals was considered a form of entertainment, and people scoured the countryside for bears, lions, stags and boars to pursue with spears and dogs (Attenborough 1987). As the Roman Empire grew to encompass the entire Mediterranean basin, its citizens travelled throughout the region to hunt and bring back animals to be killed in primitive contests in the coliseums of Rome and other cities. The coliseum games continued for more than 400 years in more than 70 amphitheatres, the largest seating up to 50,000 people on stone benches arranged around a central arena (Attenborough 1987).
Roman emperors carried favour with the public by
upstaging their predecessors in killing more animals and producing more spectacular displays of slaughter (Morris 1990). Emperor Titus inaugurated the Roman Coliseum by declaring 100 days of celebration, during which enormous numbers of animals were speared by gladiators. On the opening day, 5,000 animals were slaughtered, and over the next two days, 3,000 more were killed (Morris 1990). The caged animals were kept underground in dungeons where they were not fed, and on the day of the festival, they were hauled in their cages onto lifts that brought them into the centre of the arena. As the crowd roared with excitement, drums were beaten, trumpets blown, and the terrified animals were set loose (Attenborough 1987). Sometimes the animals were goaded to attack one another, and at other times, men armed with spears and tridents pursued them around barriers made from shrubs in imitation of hunts in the wild (Attenborough 1987). One arena hunt resulted in the killing of 300 Ostriches and 200 Alpine Chamois (Morris 1990).
Lions, tigers, bears, bulls, leopards, giraffes and deer died after
being tormented, stabbed and gored (Morris 1990). Big cats that had been starved were released into the ring where a human slave or prisoner of war was lashed to a post; the animals clawed at the person before they themselves were speared and stabbed by gladiators (Attenborough 1987). In some of the larger slaughters, 500 lions, more than 400 leopards, or 100 bears would be killed in a single day (Morris 1990). Hippos, even rhinoceroses and crocodiles, were brought into these arenas, and sometimes gladiators employed bizarre methods of killing such as decapitating fleeing ostriches with crescent-shaped arrows (Morris 1990).
The Roman audiences cheered these brutal slaughters enthusiastically as a rule, but when 20 elephants were pitted against heavily armed warriors, the screaming of these gentle animals as they were wounded caused the crowd to boo the emperor for his cruelty (Morris
1990). This did not stop their use in the games however. These slaughters virtually eliminated large mammals from the Mediterranean area.”
Many animals were imported to Britain for the pleasure of the grisly arena battles. This shipping industry was a huge operation, with some animals being obtained from the west of India. Such wild animals were considered to be special gifts which many a barbarian monarch would offer to his overlord. In Sicily, close to the village of Armerina there exists a fresco – mural painting - showing trapping devices used to capture and crate wild animals for export. Animals such as leopards would also be caught in nets dropped from trees, and third century poet Oppian even spoke of leopards being drugged by strong wine leaked into
waterholes to enable capture.
By the fourth century the attraction of the amphitheatre died out, after the adoption of Christianity which became the official religion of the Roman empire. The long production line of imported animals also dried up, and the public gradually became repulsed by the bloody battles.
If, as the facts state, the Romans imported large cats in such abundance, what are the possibilities of escapees ? Very likely we would have to say. And who would know, or even care at the time ? No-one. So then there we have our first piece of the jigsaw. Leopards and maybe a variety of smaller cats would have been imported to Britain, some, maybe more than a few, would have escaped, and if a majority of these were leopards, as the history tells us, then already a population would have been present, a seeding vital enough to produce a
breeding population of large cats.

The Menagerie

It is the travelling menagerie which provides another important clue with regards to how many of the cat’s of today got here. The origins of the travelling menagerie lies with the Romans and also Royalty in Europe around the seventeenth century, who would accumulate a number of beasts for their own personal enjoyment, although the first ever recorded zoos dated back to 2500 BC. The first royal menagerie was held at Woodstock Manor, know known as Blenheim Palace, during the reign of King Henry I, 1106-1136. Three leopards were given to King Henry III at Woodstock by Roman Emperor Frederick II, which were moved to the Tower Of London in 1235. The Zoological Society of London was formed from this collection and what is now known as the Regent’s Park site was formed in 1830. On the 24th October 2005 the BBC News website reported:
“Two lion skulls unearthed at the Tower of London have been dated to Medieval times, shedding light on the lost institution of the Royal Menagerie.
It also shows the relationship between England’s early monarchs and the ‘king of beasts’ was not just a symbolic one. The lions may have been among the first to turn up in Northern Europe since the big cats went extinct in the region at the end of the last Ice Age.
The menagerie was a popular tourist attraction, hosting exotic animals.
In addition to the lion skulls, researchers also analysed a leopard skull and the skulls of nineteen dogs. The best preserved lion skull was radiocarbon dated to between AD 1280 and 1385, making it the earliest Medieval big cat known in Britain. The leopard skull, which was badly damaged, dated to between 1440 and 1625, which covers the Plantagenet reign, the Tudors and Stuarts.
Despite their royal status, the cats were not treated with ceremony when they died, instead being dumped – unskinned – in the Tower’s moat.”
Wealthy families would also obtain exotic species, a trend which continued up until the 1970s when it was extremely extravagant to have an animal such as a black leopard in the basement. On record there are several cases of large cats escaping from their holding and being shot, the most famous incident taking place in 1530 at a spot marked as Gifford’s Cross, at Chillington Hall, West Midlands, where a ‘panther’ escaped from its cage and was about to attack a woman and her baby before Sir John Gifford, who owned the cat, destroyed it was a bolt to the skull.
The travelling menagerie, also known as the ‘Beast Show’ was the next best attraction to the waxworks and theatres. Many would flock to see dancing bears, and performing lions, and in turn organisers would attempt to bring far rarer and more exotic species into the fray, such as foreign birds and extraordinary reptiles. These exhibitions would travel the country, stopping off for a few days and then rolling, by wagon in which the animals were housed to the next destination. These shows were very much a zoo in motion, and animals were stocked
overnight in dealers yards. When the time came for the show, the wagons would be situated as to form an area and a huge, attractive facade would catch the eye of the public. By the early nineteenth century many menageries were buzzing around Britain, the most well known example being run by George Wombwell, although there must have been many obscure shows on the road also. The more popular exhibitions would not merely boast exotic animals but also magicians, lion-tamers, dancers and actors, some of which would become cult figures of their time.
George Wombwell, born in 1777 was the most famous menagerie man. It all began one day when he purchased two snakes from a man at London Docks, and began exhibiting them around the local pubs. Wombwell made a decent enough amount to realise that this kind of attraction could go down well with a bigger audience, and so began to form his own collection of
wild animals, creatures which he often purchased from boats coming into London and which had been on world voyages. By 1830 ‘Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie’ was in full flow, and some fifteen wagons made up the show displayed in 1839. Within these wagons were paraded a variety of animals from elephants to llamas and zebras, but the most intriguing were the leopards, ocelots and ‘panthers’ which must have been pumas!
When Wombwell died in 1850 part of his menagerie was left to his niece Emma Bostock, who, with husband James, ran it from 1866 to 1884, before they moved it on to their son James who in turn sold it on to his brother Edward. It was very much a family tradition. From the 1880s the travelling show became known as ‘Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie’. By this time the rolling zoo had become a worldwide phenomenon and by the 1920s, more than seventy species of animal were put on show. The last Bostock exhibition took place in
1931 after James Bostock declared, under ill health, that no further shows would take place if there was no longer a Bostock at the helm.
A who’s who of eighteenth and nineteenth menagerists lists over fifty names pertaining to exhibitions involving wild animals on the road. Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, who owned the Cobtree Estate, near Maidstone in Kent, which had its own small zoo, was Mayor of Maidstone twelve times, and had his own travelling zoo which appeared at Southend, Margate, Crystal Palace and Wembley. It consisted of some ten wagons. Large cats such as leopards and puma were also exhibited at shows run by Albert Haslam, who travelled around Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as the famous Thomas Atkins who was a rival to Wombell’s menagerie. Italian Stephanus Polito succeeded a Gilbert Pidcock in 1810 to run the Exeter Exchange menagerie, at The Strand, London, renaming it the Royal Menagerie. It is said that the animals on display were housed in cages little better than travelling trucks. The Mr Pidcock is rumoured to have been the first menagerist on record, his show dating back to 1708. His collection of animals were permanently stored at London’s Strand.
Thomas Stevens was a menagerie owner from 1865, in the Liverpool area. His exhibition had several leopards, ‘panthers’, lions and tigers. While the imposing of figure of menagerist and animal dealer John D. Hamlyn was enough to scare anyone away, his poky shop, said to have
faced the walls of the London Docks, housed many small animals but in the yard there were many big cats stored. Characters of this ilk are too numerous to mention, but we can see by this procession of menagerists the vast possibilities pertaining to populations of cats roaming the United Kingdom. Thousands of large cats must have been imported to Britain from the coming of the Romans to the travelling menageries, and escapees must have occurred on a regular basis, many of these unreported at the time.
Ballard was a menagerist known for his troupe of monkeys and dogs in 1751 which occupied Haymarket in London. One incident related to Ballard and big cat’s escaping, took place on the evening of Sunday 20th October 1816, and involved The Quicksilver, a mail-coach running between Exeter and London. In 1987, the Wylye Valley Life magazine of Wiltshire, covered the story in detail, and here is author Danny Howell’s take on what is now known as the Winterslow Lioness:
“…the coach left for Salisbury for London. On nearing the inn known as the Hut (now the Pheasant Inn) at Winterslow, about seven miles north-east of Wiltshire cathedral city, what was thought to be a large calf was seen trotting beside the horses. The steeds became nervous, and had due reason to be, for the ‘calf’ was in fact a lioness which had escaped from a travelling menagerie parked at the roadside. This menagerie was shortly due to appear at Salisbury Fair (the animal also appeared at the Bartholomew Fair in 1825).
The team of horses began to kick and lash out, causing the coach
to sway and panicking the passengers. The lioness began leaping at the off-leader, a fine horse called Pomegranate, badly mauling him. He was, of course, fixed in the traces and could do nothing to escape the fangs and claws of his assailant. He was a former racehorse, dubbed a thief on the course but had developed such a bad temper in the stable that he had been sold to a coach proprietor, hence his second career as part of a team pulling the Exeter Mail. The guard, Joseph Pike, reached for his blunderbuss and was about to fire when the menagerie owner and his assistants, accompanied by a Newfoundland dog, came upon the scene. The owner shouted not to shoot and the dog seized the lioness by the leg, which diverted her attention and prevented further injury to the horses. In the ensuing struggle the lioness killed the dog before running under a nearby granary; a building propped up off the ground by a set of straddle stones as a precaution against rats and vermin.
The coach-driver and the guard remained transfixed on top of the coach, fearing for their lives; while the passengers, screaming at the tops of their voices, fled for safety to the inn, bolting the door behind them. An ostler employed at the inn, settled the horses, while the menagerie keepers searched in the darkness under the granary with the aid of lighted candles. The lioness, believed to be five years of age, was normally quite tame and hearing familiar voices, allowed her keepers to catch her in a sack and carry her back to one of the cages.
The owner of the menagerie was particularly enterprising because following the incident at Winterslow, he promptly purchased the wounded horse and exhibited him alongside the lioness at Salisbury Fair. This was a successful move on his part and hundreds of fair-goers paid to gaze on in horror at the horse’s injuries.
The story soon attracted national attention. Not only was it reported
in newspapers; the attack was illustrated by two artists, James Pollard and A. Sauerweid. The illustration by Sauerweid, although awe-inspiring, is purely theatrical. Much rarer than Pollard’s, it shows the lioness attacking the leading horse with a great deal of ferocity. The passengers fly from the coach with streaming cloaks, while men with torches come to the rescue. The Newfoundland dog is, for some reason, portrayed as a mastiff. Pollard’s print, is the more accurate of the two…it shows the coach drawing up in front of the inn, with the lioness plunging at the throat of the leading horse.
The story of the lioness at Winterslow has been depicted again, more recently, when it appeared on one of the five 16p stamps issued by the Post Office on 31st July 1984, commemorating the bi-centenary of the introduction to the mail coach.”
So, as you can see by the examples listed in this chapter, there is enough evidence to support the current population of large cats roaming the British countryside
. Add together the many menageries, private collections, inadequate facilities at shoddy zoos, animals brought to these shores at mascots, cats imported on boats, the Roman amphitheatre and also a few cats purchased simply to be released into the wilds on purpose, and we have a pretty healthy starting base, which in turn will, we hope, explain the other mystery cats catalogued in the next few chapters. It also proves that the British ‘big cat’ situation is far from a modern mystery despite the constant reports in the press and from many researchers, that the reason these animals are here today is simply because of the last thirty years of escapees and releases into the wilds. We simply do not go for this theory, or even the suggestion that these animals have escaped from zoos consistently enough to produce today’s population. We're sure that one or two cats do escape from zoos. On December 7th 2001 a press release spoke of a four-year old Indian tiger being shot after it escaped from its cage at Howlett’s Wild Animal Park, in Canterbury. Fortunately, at the time of the escape the zoo was not open, but the tiger was seen to be moving to an open area and so was shot dead. However, although Howlett’s has lynx, caracal and at one time a black leopard, any animals that escape would easily be accounted for, and we're sure the same goes for many other reputable zoo parks in Britain.

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