Police on the prowl for big cats across Lothian

Large panther-like animals are among those spotted
Large panther-like animals are among those spotted
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A PANTHER spotted in the Edinburgh area and a large feline with a tail “similar to a lion’s” have been among the big cat sightings reported to police in the Lothians.

Members of the public have alerted the force to a variety of big cats sightings since October 2009, with many of them sparking searches by officers.

But none of the searches produced evidence of the creatures living wild in the Lothians.

Although experts said they could not rule out the possibility that animals such as panthers or leopards are wandering the countryside, it seems more likely the sightings were of Scottish wildcats or exotic cross-breeds.

A total of seven sightings have been reported to the force since October 2009, with two in the Edinburgh area, according to figures released under freedom of information laws.

In June last year, police said “a large black cat” was reported which “was believed to be the size of a Labrador dog with a long tail”, but a search uncovered no trace of the animal.

In the following month, a “panther” was reported in the Capital, which was described as being “the size of a dog with a thick black tail and broad face”.

Steve Piper, chairman of the Scottish Wildcat Association, said: “These sightings could be a mixture of things. It’s an intriguing mystery.

“They could be Scottish wildcats as there are examples of them growing to four feet long.

“People are used to seeing small domestic cats so when we they see a larger animal, they can think ‘wow’ and build it up even bigger in their mind. When they feel threatened they also puff out their body to seem bigger.

“They could also be examples where it was an exotic cat, such as a jungle cat, which have been kept as pets and either escaped or been released by the owner when they realise it’s not like having a domestic pet. They could also be cross-breeds of these exotic cats or feral cats.”

Mr Piper said that a sighting in East Calder, West Lothian, in October 2009 was “particularly interesting”.

Police received a call about a “large cat the size of a dog, tan in colour with spots and a very long tail similar to a lion’s tail” but a search proved negative.

Mr Piper, a film-maker who set up the charity to conserve the Scottish wildcat, said: “Most sightings tend to be of black cats so it’s interesting that the person described spots and the tail. It could’ve been a jungle cat or an ocelot. These are cats which could have been released or escaped.

“Scotland has a cold climate and big cats are from hot climates so it’s not ideal but they are very durable animals.”

Among the other sightings in the Lothians were a “large black cat” with a “very long tail” crossing a road in East Lothian in August last year.

Meanwhile, a “large black cat” which was the “size of a bullmastiff dog” was spotted in West Lothian last September.

In January last year, residents in Edinburgh were convinced that a big cat was loose in the Capital after spotting huge paw prints in the snow. The homeowners in Newhaven believed a puma or lynx had been forced to come in to the city to search for food during the big freeze, a move experts found “unlikely but not impossible”.

A helicopter team from Strathclyde Police also spotted a big cat on Arthur’s Seat while searching for a missing woman.

The unit made the discovery with an infrared camera and believed it was a puma from its large heat signature.

• Have you seen the big cat or do you have pictures? E-mail news_en@edinburghnews.com or call 0131-620 8734.

70s throwbacks

IT was legal and even fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s to keep exotic animals as household pets in the UK, including leopards, pumas and panthers.

When the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in 1976, many owners gave their pets up to local zoos and wildlife parks, but the numbers proved too large.

A minority of owners, worried their pets could be put down, set them free to fend for themselves in the wild. This is how the majority of big cats got into the countryside.