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The Independent Culture
Local farmers think it's a black panther; cynicsmaintain it's just an overgrown pussycat. The Ministry of Agriculture thought it was nothing at all. But now they're not so sure. PETER POPHAM took his life in his hands and went stalking. Photographs by ANDREW TESTA

and cruel as it may seem with hindsight, people bought lions and leopards and pumas as well as monkeys and gorillas and cobras and wallabies, and all in the spirit with which people today buy personalised number plates. Twenty years ago a lion cub cost only £100. Regulation was non- existent.

In 1976, the government belatedly required owners of dangerous animals to register them, pay licence fees, and provide them with secure cages. The specifications have steadily tightened over the years, and if you wanted to keep a leopard or puma legally today, you would need to spend something like £30,000 on a cage measuring 60 feet by 30 feet by 25 feet high.

For many owners, the demands were impossible to comply with, and it seems certain that some, rather than have their beloved pets put down, took them into the hills and let them go.

PC Keen and others in Cornwall believe that animal rights fanatics have been buying wild cats on the black market and releasing them deliberately in the hope that they will build up a breeding colony. But there is no persuasive evidence of this, and small zookeepers and people in the pet trade pour scorn on the notion, denying that such a black market exists.

It is, in any case, an unnecessary hypothesis. The growth in sightings more likely reflects the fact that big cats are now established and breeding. It has happened before: the homely rabbit is itself a foreigner, if you go back to its 12th century roots. Others which have dug in for the long haul include parakeets in Manchester, scorpions in Essex, black widow spiders on the South Coast, wallabies in Loch Lomond and grey squirrels just about everywhere. Snug in our cities we may dream of a countryside tidily populated by the familiar and the native. But the magazine Fortean Times is to reveal in April that big wild cats were sighted in 34 counties during 1994. Cornwall had the most, followed by Yorkshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Big cats were sighted near Balmoral in Scotland, and there is a theory that it was a leopard that ate Prince Charles's terrier, Pooh.

"Nature can no longer support or govern itself," Bob opines as we munch pasties and look out over the field where the woman was attacked by a cat. "Man has to strike a balance for nature, be a caretaker for it." That's what he believes his rifle is for.

But Rosemary Rhodes, despite the agonies she went through over her eviscerated sheep, won't stand for that. "Last summer, I knew of one woman who was bringing 30 Brownies through Bodmin Moor and I thought, my God, what if they lose one! But I don't want it shot! You're split between one responsibility and another. I've watched the cat for so long now, I just don't want it shot!" Instead, she has found the perfect modern formula for coming to terms with it. "I don't want it to be killed," she said. "Re-educate it to be vegetarian!"