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PETER FROST has been down to Essex on a Bank Holiday big game safari.

Should we be surprised that Clacton Police have been hunting a lion in the countryside of Essex? Perhaps not.  It could have been a dog, a complete hoax or it could have been an illegal pet lion. Such things certainly exist.

When you are so rich you just don’t know what to do with your money then really exotic pets are a spectacular way of parading your wealth and big cats are most popular of all.

Texas, for instance, not only has more millionaires than anywhere else on the surface of the earth but the State also has more pet tigers than there are wild tigers in the whole of the Indian sub-continent.

What Texas does today of course some ultra-rich and less principled inhabitants of Essex aspire to for tomorrow.

If you are a millionaire gangster, drug dealer or shady property developer then the ideal gift for the one you love might be a lion or leopard cub. It looks wonderful in the photographs.

It’s not even necessarily illegal. Back in 2006 the media reported that there were a dozen lions, 14 tigers and 50 leopards and scores of other big cats being kept as pets in Britain by licensed private owners.

These figures did not include zoo or circus animals.

Of course there is also a vast trade in smuggled illegal pets from endangered parrots to poisonous snakes as well as all kinds of big cats.

Just look for what you want on the internet.

A new industry has even developed cross-breeding smaller jungle felines such as servals and leopard cats with domestic breeds to produce designer big cat type pets.

Under the Dangerous Wild Animal Act 1976, private owners of all ferocious animals are required to buy an annual licence from their local authority. As we know from dangerous dogs many simply don’t bother.

So what do these moneyed owners do when their baby lion or leopard cub or other big cat gets too big to handle, or the owner get bored or are forced to spend the summer in their Caribbean tax haven or just flee the law?

The hard hearted will shoot the beast and turn it into a rug. Others will take it out into the countryside to dump it to fend for itself.

That, of course, is the origin of some of the reported sightings of big cats in our countryside and, perhaps even, that Bank Holiday Essex lion.

 Not all big cat sightings can be confirmed, of course, many can be put down to an over active imagination enhanced by drink. Many are simply hoaxes.

Some are misidentified dogs, foxes, badgers, wild boar, deer or even sheep.

Some will be just feral cats – domesticated moggies that have made the break for freedom.  Fitter and larger than domestic cats they have been known to jump a five barred gate with a fully grown rabbit in their mouth. Feral cats are far more common than you would imagine.

Other sightings are reported as lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, pumas, ‘big black cats’ or just ‘beasts’. Just a few are certainly genuine.

In 1980 a puma was captured in Inverness, Scotland. This big cat was an abandoned pet. It is now stuffed in Edinburgh museum.

In 1993 a leopard was shot on the Isle of Wight.

In 2001 a lynx was captured alive in London’s Cricklewood. The frightening beast was four times larger than a domestic pet cat.

So will we ever know just where that Essex lion came from or exactly what it was? Probably not.

However we do know there are far bigger and darker secrets behind the radio controlled gates of some of those huge villas in Essex’s millionaire belt and villains far more frightening than any King of the Jungle.

This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012

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