Essex lion hunt called off as police search finds no evidence of big cat


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The Independent Online

Police have called off a search for a lion reportedly on the loose in Essex.

Officers have spent almost 24 hours combing the countryside around Clacton-on-Sea after a group of residents yesterday claimed to have seen the king of the jungle near Earls Hall Drive in St Osyth.

But after search teams found no evidence of the big cat, the force this afternoon decided to stop looking.

An Essex Police spokesman said: "We believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat.

"Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to; yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area.

"We would like to thank the local community and holidaymakers for their patience and support throughout the past 24 hours as the police and media presence would have been somewhat overwhelming for them."

Police said they had to take the reports seriously because of their duty to protect public safety.

The force originally advised residents to remain indoors as the search got under way after 7pm yesterday.

Helicopters with heat-seeking equipment were scrambled to an area where the creature was apparently seen and experts from Colchester Zoo were called in to help.

They were shown images of the animal captured by a local and could not rule out that it was a lion.

As well as a heightened police presence and the helicopter search, zoo workers said to be armed with tranquilliser guns joined armed officers.

Essex Police said "public safety had remained at the forefront of the policing operation" but officers can now advise residents to "once again return to normal life".

The force also warned that "several doctored photographs are in circulation through social networking sites and other media forums".

And officers said one night-time picture in circulation showing the silhouette of what looked like a lion, was "never one that police were examining".

It is not the first time that normal life has been disrupted because of reports of a lion on the loose.

Last year, West Yorkshire Police scrambled a helicopter and passengers were prevented from leaving a train after a motorist reported seeing a lion as she drove through Shepley, near Huddersfield.

A hunt found nothing.

Stephen Atkin, 52, a building maintenance inspector from Louth, Lincolnshire, who was also at the caravan site, said he had been asked to confirm the suspected sighting to the police.

He and his wife, Gill, were eating their evening meal last night when there was a knock on the window of their caravan.

"My wife and I were sitting in our caravan having our evening meal when there was a knock at the window from a gentleman asking if we could confirm to the police that we are witnessing a lion, or I would say a large cat, across the other side of the field.

"I took the phone off the gentleman and spoke to the police and witnessed that 'Yes, what the gentleman has just told you is definitely a very large animal, and possibly a lion, definitely a large cat.'

"We witnessed it, I would say, for about 20 to 30 minutes cleaning itself and rolling about in the field."

He said the animal was the length of two sheep "put together".

"It was a big animal."

Mrs Atkin, 51, a hospital administrator, took pictures which the couple handed in to the police.

"I did not think it was a lion as its ears were too pointed but it was really big."