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British big cat theory gets bump from lynx link

April 24, 2013|By Geoffrey Mohan
  • A female Canadian lynx heads for the woods after being released into the wild by the Colorado Division of Wildlife Wednesday, Feb. 3, 1999, near South Fork, Colo.
A female Canadian lynx heads for the woods after being released into the… (Jack Smith / Associated…)

Scientists have uncovered a Canadian lynx specimen that briefly roamed the British countryside, at least until it killed two dogs and was dispatched by a gun-wielding farmer in southwestern England.

The discovery probably will cause fanatics of the British Big Cat Theory to smile like a Cheshire Cat. They’ve been trying to convince skeptics that people who’ve reported seeing a large black panther and any number of smaller feral felids are not crazy.

This lynx, however, is long dead. Until recently, its stuffed carcass was gathering dust in a small regional museum in Bristol. Judging by its teeth, it was fed soft foods in captivity before escaping and killing two dogs around 1903 near Newton Abbot, Devon, say scientists who published their findings Wednesday in the journal Historical Biology.

“It definitely doesn’t lend credence to what people are seeing, but it does remind us that these kinds of cat occurrences did happen,” said Ross Barnett, a paleogeneticist from Durham University who helped analyze the specimen.

Not so fast, though, said Danny Bamping, a self-described cryptozoologist. “Either way it’s positive evidence for the fact that big cats did live in England,” he said.

Big Cat Theorists, including Bamping, who heads the British Big Cats Society, hold that passage of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act caused owners of exotic cats to let them loose. But Bamping even suggests that U.S. troops during the World Wars brought feline mascots along and never repatriated them.

There have been credible sightings of non-native cats, along with tracks, hair, scat and the occasional dead sheep with cat-like bite marks, according to both Bamping and the researchers. While not all the reported wild felids are zoologically “big cats” (generally meaning those in the panthera family), they don’t appear to be domestic British shorthairs, either. Felicity the Puma became rather famous after her capture in 1980. And a live Eurasian lynx, for example, was captured in London in 2001, the authors acknowledge.

Zoologists, along with England’s top environmental agency, have concluded that no wild cats are breeding in her majesty’s realm, and that most sightings have involved rare, recent escapees. Those that are not outright hoaxes, they say, are just optical illusions involving large domesticated cats. Last year, an extensive search for a "lion" reportedly seen in Essex turned out to be a ginger cat called Teddy Bear.

Barnett and fellow researchers suggest that escapes of exotic cats occurred regularly enough to go noticed well before the act was passed.

Wild cats have been extinct for centuries in England. But recent discoveries that Eurasian lynxes lasted well into the Middle Ages have renewed interest in Britain's feline history. Such was the motivation of the scientists who scrounged the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and found a specimen labeled as a bobcat. Further study, published this week, showed it to be a Canadian lynx.

A man identified only as “Mr. Heb” shot the errant feline, which was stuffed and donated in 1903 by a Mr. J. Niblet of Newton Abbot.

“There’s just one line in the catalog,” Barnett said. “It was very reserved. Very Edwardian.”

But hope springs eternal among big fans of big cats.

“We know that we’ve got cats out there ­– Pumas and lynxes and ocelots,” Bamping said. “For years the government of this country has put a lid on this and not ‘let the cat out of the bag’ so to speak.”

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