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Bo's Place

Living With Animals


In November 2002 my life changed dramatically when a lonely, rough-haired lurcher called Bo moved into my home. It wasn't that I ever wanted a dog or even invited him in, but there seemed nowhere else for him to go. With a cat who hated him on sight, a full-time, often stressful career, and a degree of freedom that I had treasured since the children had grown up and left home, I admitted to feelings of resentment. I wasn't ready to join those robust, dedicated walkers, out in all weathers and managing to look as if they were having fun. But he moved in anyway.

I discovered very quickly that in my relatively confined 1930s semi the dog and cat must never meet. Doors had to be kept closed at all times to separate the feuding pair. My formerly docile feline friend displayed a side of her personality never seen before; but things were to get much, much worse.

After two days of leaving Bo 'home alone' while I went to work, all hell broke loose. He took out his frustration on my freshly ironed laundry, cushions from the sofa and beautiful new towels from the bathroom. I returned home to find them neatly shredded and displayed like trophies around the half of the house made available to him.

Day three saw me setting off to work; Bo smiling happily in the back of my car; and that's the way it's been for over two years now. Wherever I go, he goes. Social life in tatters like my laundry, foreign holidays a distant memory, my triumphant companion now enjoys long, muddy walks in the Liverpool suburbs, observed, I feel, by quizzical eyes looking out from the warm, cosy comfort of more orderly homes.

June 2003 found me loading the car and heading off, not to John Lennon Airport and distant sun-kissed shores, but to a farm cottage near the Preseli Hills in South Wales - accompanied by Bo.

Several hours later, 11.30 p.m. to be precise, I had given up hope of identifying the appropriate hillside and found myself totally lost and not a little unnerved, in a small parking area behind some shops, waiting for daylight. I had hoped to stop in the village, known locally as a town, to ask directions. Sadly though, (for us anyway), there appeared to have been some kind of celebration and, with street corners occupied by revellers, I kept on driving until I found a secluded spot to just hide away for a while.

Yes, we left Liverpool in good time and yes, the weather was good; but no-one can argue that Carmarthen and Caernarfon sound the same and, well anyway, the journey took longer than planned!

Bo doesn't travel all that well. He finds it stressful, so he was tired and ready to sleep. After an hour or so the last of the revellers had disappeared and everywhere was quiet. I let Bo out of the car for a comfort break but was glad to return and lock ourselves in for the remaining hours of darkness. Within two minutes my hound was snoring. Some protection! It was going to be a long night.

Then something caught my eye. It was a fox. I watched it walk swiftly in front of my car and a little way up the lane before disappearing into some bushes. It was clearly defined in the moonlight. About fifteen minutes later it returned, (I assumed it was the same fox), walking back in the direction from which it had come. Loud snores from the back reassured me that Bo hadn't seen anything.

Another hour or so passed, and then I saw it. Slightly taller and longer than Bo (he's 27 kg), black, rounded face, running effortlessly and gracefully down the lane, passing directly in front of me. There was no mistaking its cat-like gait. I hoped it would return, but it didn't.

By 5 a.m. it was light enough to move on. The farm was barely 10 minutes drive away; easy to find in the morning light. Later that day I described what I'd seen to the farmer and his family and it was confirmed that there had been several sightings of a black cat in the area. I also heard that one had been seen with its young not far from Fishguard. Local farmers had been out hunting for them, anxious to protect their livestock.

There have been reported sightings of big cats all over the UK, with numerous sightings on the Isle of Wight. They have even been linked with the paranormal. It would appear, however, that they're very much alive and clearly breeding in our countryside. It is believed that the number of these animals is running into many hundreds. They are able to thrive because of the abundance of food and lack of predators. Our countryside provides a perfect environment. Even areas close to Liverpool have had reported sightings, and the Runcorn Weekly News, 24th July 2003 gave an account of a black cat resembling a panther being spotted prowling the back streets of Halton. This animal was allegedly seen near Halton Castle near the church field and alarmed two witnesses when it turned and growled at them. Eighteen months prior to this a taxi driver was said to have witnessed a massive cat staring at him when he parked his car off Warrington Road in Runcorn. It was described as jet black, with big powerful shoulders and quite a small head. Its body was about four feet long with its tail adding at least another three feet to its length. About two years ago, a huge cat, known as the Beast of Widnes, was seen on the prowl at St. Michael's Golf Club in Widnes.

According to Ian Wickison, who has been tracking and researching the big cats in the U.K. for several years now, the black leopards found in the British Isles could be of either a leopard or jaguar species. Both leopard and jaguar can give birth to black offspring. Of the several species of big cats living and breeding in the British Isles, the largest members of the group are the black leopard, the puma and the lynx. Sightings increase in the months of August, September and October when harvesting takes place and essential cover is removed. Both the puma and the black leopard are slightly larger than a Labrador dog. Their main diet is rabbit, but Ian has also known them to eat snails and frogs for protein. Although there is no shortage of evidence to suggest they have been responsible for killing sheep, often the sheep have not been eaten, suggesting that they were killed in self-defence, possibly after alarming the big cats by walking up to them and showing no fear. Secretive and solitary, the black leopard has been described as the most aggressive and most feared animal in the world. It usually hunts in the night or the early hours of the morning. Although it has black fur, it is spotted and its spots can be seen in the right lighting conditions.

In a recent conversation with Ian Wickison I was advised that he has had many sightings of black leopards. Although they are quite capable of inflicting serious harm he believes they are likely to attack only when confronted, especially when protecting their young. However, the black leopard has a proven track record as a man killer and Ian is concerned that some action should be taken by our Government before someone is seriously hurt or even killed.

Some of the big cats living in our countryside are likely to be second, third and possibly even fourth generation offspring from animals originally brought into the country by our colonial forefathers who introduced them as exotic souvenirs from distant corners of the Empire. Some of these animals would have escaped from zoos or circuses over the years. However, most of the big cats originate from those illegally released into the countryside following the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act in 1976, when irresponsible owners set their animals free to avoid having to purchase expensive licences.

I'll keep an open mind about the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti and even the Bodmin Big Cat, but I believe the animal I saw that night to have been a black leopard; enigmatic, mysterious, mystical - but very real and totally terrestrial. Let's hope the Government will step in before it's too late in order to afford some protection, both to the public and to these beautiful and potentially vulnerable animals.

For more information on big cats, please go to: www.britishbigcats.org

© 2004 Eileen Shaw

 

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