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Page last updated at 17:56 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010
The Surrey puma: Fact or fiction?
By Heather Driscoll-Woodford
BBC Surrey

Big cat
There's never been any clear photographic evidence to prove the big cat exists

Rumours of giant felines roaming wild in Surrey can be traced back to William Cobbett's day.

Sightings in the 1960s sparked an ongoing debate of whether the Surrey Puma really exists or not.

But after almost two centuries of reported sightings, it's fair to say some of the county's residents believe it is out there, somewhere.

So will the mystery of the big feral cats hiding out in Surrey's hills ever be solved?

In 27 October 1825, Farnham's most famous resident, the farmer, writer and political commentator, William Cobbett reported seeing "a big grey cat, the size of a medium-sized spaniel" whilst on a rural ride, at the ruins of Waverley Abbey.

Little did he know, that his sighting would start a rumour mill which is still grinding on 200 years later.

It was in the 1960s that the county's big cat tales really grabbed the media's attention and public imagination.

Surrey residents reported seeing animals ranging from large black creatures, to lions and cat-like beasts.

The nation's press really got their teeth into the tale, nicknaming the unknown animals the "Crondall Cougar" and the "Munstead Monster" and most famously, the "Surrey Puma."

Gradually, public opinion came round to the thinking, that what everyone was seeing, was indeed a puma. Or pumas.

The explanations for the sightings, came in just as fast.

Theories included big cats escaping from private collections or travelling circuses, native animals such as dogs, foxes or mink being wrongly identified, and even that the big cats may actually be figments of the imagination, or hallucinations!

Puma and cat comparison
The cougar has numerous names in English of which PUMA and mountain lion are the most popular. In certain parts of the world it is also called panther and mountain screamer.
Melanism in cats, means the cat is jet black. Melanistic cats tend to be jaguars and leopards, and they are often known as Black Panthers.
Although most of the Surrey Puma sightings are of a large black cat, there are NO recorded cases of a melanistic cougar, which either means the Surrey Puma is extremely rare or isn't actually a puma at all!
The puma (cougar) is the largest type of small wild cat.
The puma (cougar) is the largest type of small wild cat.

When the number of sightings started to die down in the 1970s, a local paper received a letter which said "Sir, I am feeling horribly neglected. Couldn't someone see me again soon? Yours, etc. The Surrey Puma"!

But were the animals that people reported seeing, actually pumas? Or any other sort of big cat? It seems no-one can agree.

"Alien Big Cat" is the official term for a non-native, large cat, and refers to pumas and also to panthers, leopards, lynx, and any other big furry cat-like critter that is living wild.

It's possible when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976, which made it illegal to own exotic but dangerous animals, a handful of owners released their pets into the wild.

However, this wouldn't explain the earlier sightings.

Some zoologists and naturalists have said there may be as many as 100 big cats at large in the UK and they back up this claim with reference to sightings, photos, paw casts, farm animal carcasses, and video footage.

But there have been no clear photos taken or any convincing video.

Experts have attributed supposed puma kills to dogs, not big cats. And most prints found have shown claw marks, which is a dog paw trait.

The paw print investigated by Surrey Police, on 7 September 1966 in Munstead , was identified by London Zoo officials as the print of a puma.

However the average puma paw is 3/4 inch (19 mm) smaller than the cast, which would mean the animal that made it would have been much bigger than any eyewitness has said.

Strangely, for all the species of cat said to be roaming the Surrey hills, no-one has ever reported seeing a tiger or a full-size lion.

Sceptics point out that if big cats have been surviving, and breeding, in the wild for all this time, they only have a natural life span of some 20 years.

Therefore, if they are really out there, someone, somewhere, should have come across a big cat corpse by now.

When a 14 year old boy found a big cat skull in a river in Bodmin Moor, it seemed certain to be proof the "Beast" was real. However, the experts at the Natural History Museum proved different . If it had existed at all, it would have been as a rug.

A study was carried out on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) between 12 January and the 1 July 1995.

They said "It was accepted at the start of this investigation that it would never be possible to prove that such an animal, or animals, did not exist, but it was believed that if they did, hard evidence would be forthcoming.

No verifiable evidence for the presence of a "big cat" was found."

"There were only four suspected livestock kills reported in nearly six months, none of which gave any indication of the involvement of anything other than native animals and dogs."

If it is black in colour, then it is extremely unlikely to be a puma

So if the Bodmin Beast doesn't exist, then why should the Surrey Puma?

At the time of the Guildford Spectrum Leisure Centre sighting , an RSPCA spokesman was quoted as saying "We are pretty sure there are large cats out there. It is pure speculation. Nobody has been able to catch one of these animals or provide clear photographic evidence."

DEFRA now say there have been escapes of such beasts from zoos or illegal ownerships, but it does not believe there is a breeding population. "There is always an issue of something escaping from somewhere" said a spokeswoman.

So both organisations are not ruling out the possibility that we do have our very own oversized pussycat stalking the local fauna.

But until there is actual proof in the form of a live cat or a convincing corpse, the existence of the Surrey Puma, will continue to be a source of worldwide debate.


Have you seen any big cats in the wild in Surrey? Email your sightings to surrey@bbc.co.uk

This morning I spotted a large black cat (too big for a domestic cat) walking through my office car park in Leatherhead.

Rashna Kovacs

My Dad in the sixties sighted the Surrey Puma in Godlaming in Surrey. He appeared on the 24 Hour Program at the time and on the Radio talking about the Surrey Puma and his sightings. He's still got the original script from the BBC and a poem that was released at the time round about 1963-1964.

Gary Wisdom

I saw a black puma cat when I was younger (1983 to 1985) cannot remember actual date but I had a friend with me and he saw it. The cat used the railway track as a road to get about as we chased it through the woods in Fetcham recreation ground woods.


A website devoted to the Surrey puma 'and friends' is www.surreypuma.blogspot.com Over the years several species of cat have been seen throughout the county and the leafy suburbs of London, these being the puma (mountain lion, cougar), Jungle Cat (smaller than a puma and also known as Swamp Cat) Lynx, (short stubbed tail, once native to the UK a few thousand years ago) and black leopard. Sightings of big black cats have existed in the Surrey puma lore for decades but pumas are not black. The puma is a fawn-tan coloured animal, and not scientifically a 'big cat' for it cannot roar, but instead emits an eerie scream.

Neil Arnold

Surrey puma sightings: Timeline
17 Feb 10 |  Nature & Outdoors



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