When is a big cat not a big cat, but just a big cat?
That’s the question which people in parts of Surrey have been asking themselves for more than 50 years, since the first serious sighting, on July 16th, 1962, of the fabled “Surrey Puma”.
The distinction, of course is between a ‘big cat’ in the sense of a lion, tiger, leopard or indeed, puma, or a ‘big cat’ in the sense of a larger-than-usual domestic moggy. In darkest Surrey, arguments rage to this day over whether the many and various sightings down the years really are of a puma or similar secretive beast, or just fleeting glimpses of overgrown kitties out on the prowl.
Whatever the case, the legend of the Surrey Puma rivals those from other parts of the UK, such as the formidable “Beast of Exmoor” or the equally fearsome-sounding “Beast of Bodmin Moor”. Rumours and claimed sightings of these wild cats roaming the British countryside and preying on farmers’ livestock may sound farfetched, but they have been taken seriously over the years.
In 1983 a platoon of Royal Marines was deployed to track and catch the Beast of Exmoor amid a flurry of media excitement, but despite several weeks combing the moors they found no evidence of it. The only native wildcat in the British Isles is the Scottish wildcat, but it is around the size of a domestic cat and only found, in dwindling numbers, in certain habitats in the Scottish Highlands.
Yet rumours abound of far bigger felines stalking their prey, with explanations ranging from escaped circus or safari park animals to those dumped by illegal collectors once they became too big and dangerous to keep as pets. Of course, it doesn’t do the local tourist economy any harm to have stories of an elusive beast at large in the district. Just look at Loch Ness.
It was water board worker Ernest Jellet who, 56 years ago today, reported seeing a big cat chasing a rabbit near a reservoir he was visiting in the course of his work. A keen naturalist, Mr Jellet was convinced it was no ordinary domestic puss, but a genuine ‘big cat’, possibly a puma. There had been previous sightings on the Surrey/Hampshire border in 1959, but they were sketchy and not as credible as Mr Jellet’s account.
In any case, as the legend of the ‘Surrey Puma’ started to grow, other sightings were reported with increasing regularity, although details about the animal’s size, colour and markings often varied. In August 1964 a bullock at a farm in Hampshire, near its border with Surrey, was found severely lacerated. Only something the size of a puma would attempt to down anything as big, it was claimed.
In a two-year period, 326 reports were received at Godalming Police Station of large wild cats roaming free in the countryside. While many were dismissed as fanciful or even deliberate hoaxes, others were taken more seriously. In one case the police even took a plaster cast of a paw print, identified by experts at London Zoo as that of a puma, lending new credibility to the story.
Of course, the local press lapped it up, especially during the quieter months of late summer, when the latest Surrey Puma sightings helped spice up pages otherwise filled with summer fetes, wedding reports and long lists of results from the local horticultural show.
In 1966 a former police photographer, Ian Pert, took a grainy black and white photo (shown above) of a ‘longer-than-average’ cat roaming near the village of Worplesden. Unfortunately, there was nothing else in the shot to give it scale, but the way the cat stood and its overly-long tail did suggest a puma. Other sightings sparked speculation it could be an Iberian Lynx, which looks more like a small leopard.
In 1968 a local farmer claimed to have shot a puma, but could produce no evidence. Other claimed encounters, including by a respected countryside ranger and police officers, have been taken more seriously. Hair samples allegedly found in the Surrey Hills in 1984 were also identified as being from a puma, and periodic sightings continue to this day.
Of course, if there ever was a puma at large in Surrey, and if there still is, then it cannot have been alone. The lifespan of a puma in the wild is about 12 years, so if there’s still one out there it must be the third or fourth generation of the one spotted by Mr Jellet.