The Beast of Bodmin Moor was a black panther-like creature believed to inhabit Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. Since 1983, around sixty big cat sightings were recorded in the mid-Cornwall area and these were supported by numerous reports of mutilated livestock. The “beast”, supposedly three to five feet long and sporting white-yellow eyes, was one of Britain’s most feared animals.
Accumulated evidence eventually led to a six-month government investigation in 1995. The probe concluded that there was no ‘verifiable evidence’ of exotic cats loose in the UK. After examining dozens of photographs and videos, as well as staging reconstructions, the expert zoologists decided the “beast” was actually a black cat about 12 inches (30 centimetres) tall and the rumours of big cats roaming Dartmoor and savaging livestock were officially dismissed as sheer fantasy, no more credible than claims about Bigfoot or Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.
Then, in July 2016, in the wake of the escape from Dartmoor Zoo of Flaviu, a rare lynx, Benjamin Mee, the owner of the zoo, told reporters that Flaviu’s disappearance was by no means the first. For the first time, Mee revealed that when he bought the zoo for £1m in 2006, he had been informed of a pack of pumas that had allegedly been released into the wild in the late 1970s or early 1980s. They lived on the surrounding land, terrorising farmers and their livestock while feeding on scraps of rubbish in the village. “There were lots of rumours and many different stories about how they got out,” he said. “Some say they were released from the old zoo either by mistake or on purpose – we just don’t know – while some others say they were being transported here at the time from the zoo in Plymouth. I have no knowledge of the circumstances about how it happened. But at the time there were three pumas that should have been here at Dartmoor Zoo that were not. I have had it verified from very reliable sources over the years – gamekeepers and farmers – and I am totally sure that I saw one myself.” He added: “I think two whole generations of pumas managed to live on the moor until the winter of 2010. When the weather got so cold, they all died.”
According to Danny Bamping, the founder of the British Big Cats Society, it turns out that in 1978 Dartmoor Zoo’s previous owner, Ellis Daw, had been expecting a transfer of five pumas from Plymouth Zoo, which had been owned by the circus family, the Chipperfields, and had been in the process of closing down. “When they arrived,” Mr Bamping explained, “Ellis told me there were only two pumas in the consignment but five tags in the cage. Mary Chipperfield told Ellis she had broken down on Dartmoor and that somehow three of the pumas had escaped. We think she let them out on the moor. She wasn’t even obliged to report it, because releasing exotic species wasn’t even illegal until 1981. It was just brushed under the carpet and never talked about. It has never come out until now.”
Mrs Chipperfield died in 2014, so this story cannot be verified, but it is thought she released her favourite breeding pair along with a young male to keep them company rather than see them go into a new home. Roger Cawley, the husband of the late Mrs Chipperfield, has dismissed the claims about the pumas. He said: “We had no dealings with the old Dartmoor Wildlife Park all those years ago and certainly never released pumas or any other wild animals on Dartmoor. However, I hope Flaviu is eventually found and captured safely.”