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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 22:01 GMT 23:01 UK
Panther and puma at large
The USPCA believes a panther and a puma are at large
A leading animal charity has said that not one, but two wild cats are roaming the north Antrim coastline.

The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said a black panther was living near the village of Ballybogey, outside Portrush, and a brown coloured puma was roaming the hills near Ballycastle.

The claim was made as a dawn to dusk operation by USPCA and police officers on Wednesday to catch the wild cat drew to a close.

The USPCA said both animals were released near Bushmills in July.

Reported sightings by members of the public showed discrepancies in the colour of the animal seen.

However, the charity said it played down differences, lest the public became concerned about two wild cats on the loose.

USPCA withdraws

The USPCA is now withdrawing from efforts to track the cats, saying that they will melt away into background.

However, police said they would continue to investigate sightings of both animals.

Earlier on Wednesday, the search for a big cat had been narrowed down to a wooded area in County Antrim.

A helicopter and police air support unit had also been involved in the operation to try to catch or kill the animal, thought to be a puma.

It is an unpopular thing for the authorities to say, but the marksmen are more likely to be busy than the tranquiliser team

The hunt then narrowed to the village of Ballybogey. The cat is linked to the death of six sheep in that area.

The search followed more than 20 sightings of a wild animal in the north coast since August.

Earlier on Wednesday, USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott said, at one stage, the hunt had been tantalisingly close to success.

"We were very near to the animal but unfortunately it thwarted us," he said.

With tranquilliser equipment and a special enclosure at the society's animal sanctuary prepared for the cat, he hoped it would not have to be killed.

But Mr Philpott accepted public safety was in the hands of the police.

"If I can get my men to it quickly enough it will come to my sanctuary to be cared for," he said.

"I'm here to preserve life, not to end it, but I do accept that the events of the last six weeks have brought particular pressure so bear on the police.

"They may have to take actions I might not agree with."

The first sightings of the cat were reported in early August in the Portrush, Portballintrae, and Bushmills area.

Attack on calf

A few days later, paw prints found in the area were identified as being made by a mountain lion, possibly a puma or panther.

On 20 August, a farmer in the Bushmills area blamed the cat for attacking a flock of his sheep, killing a ram.

Earlier in the week, police marksmen were called to Cookstown in County Tyrone after a suspected attack on a calf.

A police operation on 4 September to catch an animal was called off after the cat was scared away by people trying to photograph it.

The BBC's Mark Simpson
"The big cat is causing harm"

BBC NI's Jeremy Mitchell
"The USPCA say if the cat is not caught, it should be left to settle in the Northern Irish countryside"

Big cat search abandoned
04 Sep 03  |  Northern Ireland
Fears of further big cat attacks
21 Aug 03  |  Northern Ireland
Release of wild cats 'deliberate'
19 Aug 03  |  Northern Ireland
Search for puma continues
09 Aug 03  |  Northern Ireland
'Wild cat' remains at large
11 Aug 03  |  Northern Ireland

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