It was with some excitement I clicked through on the link, ‘giant big cat spotted in Sevenoaks’ from the local paper’s Twitter feed last Thursday. The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported a sighting within Knole Park, roughly on its northern border with the golf club and towards the Hollybush area. This immediately got my interest, as there is a water feature in this part of the park and it is one of the better areas for approaching the deer who gather along the gallops. These famous former hunting corridors around the estate provide thick cover, with wooded banks and dense bushes on either side. It would be a perfect ambush site and the presence of food and water lends merit to the reported sighting.
The animal itself was described as “giant, about six foot long, jet black with a long tail.” Its movement was also described as fluid and fast by the eye-witness, who also clarified “there was no chance it was a dog or a horse or anything.”
As somebody who studied zoology at university and a lifelong naturalist with an unhealthy interest in the relationship between man and apex predators, the sighting of a big cat in my own town was bound to get my juices flowing. I also possess a vivid imagination fuelled by cryptid creatures such as these British big cats, Bigfoot and so forth. Indeed, watch this space for my first novel, coming soon, set in the Highlands of Scotland and featuring a big black cat all of its own.
The second report was a little baffling location wise. This one was of a similarly described animal seen the next day on Blindhouse Lane, towards Stone Street. A large black cat was glimpsed trotting down the middle of the road by a motorist. As he approached, it leapt the roadside bank and entered a field before disappearing from sight. Now, there is a Stone Street Road in Sevenoaks and it isn’t far from Knole’s borders, but I’m not aware of a Blindhouse Lane. There is though, a Blindhouse Lane that joins a Stone Street in Ashford, over 40 miles away. This is a little far to be the same animal, but obviously lends credence to the idea that Kent is home to a number of these animals.
The third report came in on March 31st and was considered an early April Fools, but its genuineness was protested by the paper. It is unfortunate the eye-witness made a flippant remark about carrying Kitekat with her in future, adding further speculation about its authenticity, but her account is thus. Again, in Knole Park, she saw a large black “cat-like animal,” crossing a path, apparently disturbed by a local ladies jogging group whom she was marshalling for. The witness also recollected finding large pools of blood near the 14th hole of the golf course in the past and speculated it could be the work of the mysterious animal.
The deer keeper at Knole has alternatively suggested the blood could be from culls and also voiced his doubts that a cat was making a meal of his stock, suggesting the deer would be more elusive. Personally, although I would expect a change in behaviour in the deer, I would expect them to move more into the open, where they can see a predator coming, as well as to instinctively move towards people. I would also expect them to be more skittish around dusk and dawn and move around the park more regularly rather than stay in one place. This is well documented behaviour in prey animals, from deer herds reacting to the newly introduced wolves of Yellowstone, to Puffins in the Hebrides relying on tourists to scare off crows and gulls from their burrows. Perhaps he can keep us posted!
Personally, it’s easy for me to believe, having seen a similar animal in the area a few years ago. In December 2011, at approximately 11.30pm I came up Riverhill onto the Tonbridge Road, and as I came through the second bend on the brow of the hill, before you get to Gracious Lane, I had to brake hard as three roe deer does ran across the road. The deer seemed panicked and were moving very fast. They didn’t hesitate to disappear into the bank on my left. As I moved off, I caught a momentary glimpse of a large black animal crossing the road further up. It was beyond the reach of my headlights, but I picked up the greenish eye shine of the animal, was aware of its slinking, fluid gate and made out a clear silhouette. It was about the size of a Great Dane dog, had a long thick tail almost as long as its body and it appeared black in colour. My immediate thought was leopard, as it didn’t seem to have the bulk or heft of a jaguar, but any identification under such circumstances is speculative at best. All I will say, is that I reported it in the morning and wasn’t treated like a mad man, but neither was the presence of the green berets requested either.
I also personally have a theory that these animals regularly use roads as ambush sites, learning that deer often hesitate before crossing or become injured or killed in doing so. Leopards in their more natural environments have been shown to lie by a roadside, waiting for safari vehicles to flush game towards them. I don’t see any reason why the same instincts wouldn’t be in tact in our own, albeit out-of-place population if it exists.
So let’s clear a few things up whilst we’re on my favourite subject. First, let’s look at species. The animal in the report is described as possibly being a puma, panther, lynx or jaguar. Although ‘black panther’ is a common description, no such species exists. It in fact refers to the melanistic form of the leopard in most cases, or more dubiously to the jaguar, also in melanistic form. Melanism is the genetic mutation of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin. When viewed closely, the spots of the leopard or jaguar usually can still be seen against the dark coat. Melanism is documented in 11 of 37 cat species and is most common in leopards, jaguars and bobcats. Although statistically speaking melanism could potentially occur in any species, no black lions, tigers, pumas or lynxes have ever been documented. Dismissing for the moment notions of hybridisation and so forth, that suggests that a large black cat is likely to only be either a jaguar or leopard. So no more puma talk until we see something tawny or golden please, and the lynx has a characteristically bobbed tail (as does its smaller bobcat cousin), and therefore doesn’t match the eye-witness descriptions physically or by colouration.
As to where they came from, most people point to the passing of the Dangerous Wild Animal’s Act in 1976. Most people are familiar with the story of the lion from Harrods and so forth. It’s less well known that big cats were a popular fashion accessory and pet choice, with no licensing requirements or restrictions on owning or purchasing them. Black leopards were very popular as you can imagine. They capture the imagination like no other big cat and they are incredibly beautiful animals up close. They were also a popular choice with entertainers of the time and television programmes, boosting their appeal further. When the 1976 act was passed, licenses were required and appropriate housing and security was needed. It is suggested and documented to a certain extent that a large number of animals were simply released into the wild to avoid the expense of keeping them. So their presence, especially in the South East and South West has merit at the very least.
If you are interested in just how many sightings there are and whereabouts, I recommend Neil Arnold’s no nonsense blog at www.kentbigcats.blogspot.co.uk that looks at Kent reports.
There are other explanations offered by some, involving anything from hybrids to inter-dimensional beings. One mystical acquaintance even suggested my concentration in writing a novel on big cats could have created a tulpa-like entity, a manifestation of the imagination given form by the reported sightings and interest. Personally, I prefer my cryptids a little more mainstream and rationally explained, but I do admit, there’s plenty of room for the unknown, especially in the 1,000 acres of Knole Park and even among the suitably snooty streets of Sevenoaks.