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Friday, 28 January, 2000, 21:08 GMT
Big cats prowl British countryside

leopard Big cats on the prowl in the British countryside

What would you do if you came face to face with a leopard while enjoying a countryside walk?

It's not as bizarre as it would once seem after a reported increase in the number of big cats wandering around Britain.

The chances of the general public bumping into a big cat is increasing after it was estimated there may be more than 100 leopards and pumas roaming the British countryside.

No panic

Big cat experts believe the animals are the offspring of beasts released by owners in the 1970s after the introduction of stringent new laws governing wild and dangerous animals.

But the RSPCA is asking people not to panic.

Commenting on the apparent rise in sightings of big cats in the countryside, an RSPCA spokeswoman added: "A lot of these are unconfirmed, but people should not necessarily be alarmed. There's no need for people to panic."

A former lion-tamer has told how he released a panther and a cougar into the English countryside in the 1970s.

People should not necessarily be alarmed. There's no need for people to panic.
RSPCA spokeswoman

Leslie Maiden, who once owned more than a dozen big cats, said he released the animals off the A57 Snake Pass in Derbyshire.

"I released a panther 26 years ago on to the moors on the Pennines at Snake Pass," Mr Maiden, of Dudley in the West Midlands, told the BBC's Midlands Today news programme.

"It was miles from anywhere. It was a couple of days after releasing a cougar," he said.

Mr Maiden, 63, now said he regretted what he had done, but that he had had no choice.

He said: "I've always been an animal-lover. But people came to me with the animals saying they would have to put them down. I had no option."

lion Big cats on the loose

Fellow big cat owner Lewis Foley, who kept the animals at a menagerie with Mr Maiden, disclosed that a friend of his in Coventry had set a panther loose in the Nottinghamshire area in 1974.

Mr Foley said: "He knew about the new laws and didn't want it put down.

"I couldn't accommodate it and he said he was going to set it loose in the Nottinghamshire area."

Friends in Sheffield also set big cats loose on the Pennines, the 61-year-old former engineer added.

The comments came after recent newspaper reports that a black leopard had been spotted at Ettington near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire.

I've always been an animal-lover. But people came to me with the animals saying they would have to put them down. I had no option
Former lion tamer Leslie Maiden

An RSPCA spokeswoman said Mr Maiden and Mr Foley had not broken the law because it only became illegal to release wild animals into the countryside in the early 1980s.

She said: "The 1981 Countryside and Wildlife Act made it illegal to release into the wild in the United Kingdom any non-indigenous animal.

"It is definitely illegal now. Clearly, these species prey on animals lower down the chain and they may also be at risk themselves."

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