I was sat at a terminal in Bodmin Police Headquarters when I got the email from our Press Office. They were looking for an "urgent response" to a news report that a panther like "big black cat" had been seen in a garden and scratched a dog. As the newly appointed Wildlife Crime Lead for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly I thought I'd better respond urgently.
On this occasion, unusually, someone from the police had gone to see the reporting person. Even more unusually a plaster caste had been taken of a foot print that had been carefully protected under a dustbin lid. I think the fact that we attended and took that plaster caste is what made this particular incident newsworthy. That and also I guess the fact that most of us are a bit fed up of the "news" that has filled our papers, web browsers and tellies for the last few months. Putting out a bit of a story about big black cats prowling around Cornish villages probably sounded like a really good idea to the news hounds.
I did not hold quite the same view, and after running my thoughts passed some of the more experienced Wildlife Crime Officers I found they had the same views. These were, in summary, that the risk to anyone from being attacked by a panther in Cornwall, or any other rural part of the UK, appears to be quite a bit lower than the risk of being hit by lightening. Also that the poor beast should be left alone to get on with its life as best it can, and not be subjected to the unwanted attention extensive press coverage could very well bring. Hence the hopefully really dull response we wrote for our Press Office.
As an aside, I used to do the same as the duty Inspector when I'd get phone calls from crime correspondents calling me "mate" and asking for updates on anything "interesting" that had happened overnight. Since the 1980s I've found a "nothing to see here" type of response works best at protecting the privacy of those who would otherwise find themselves subject to unwanted attention. If they want that attention, that's fine and they have every right to step into the spotlight. I just don't point it at people, or big black cats.
Does that mean I don't think there is a big cat out there, somewhere? Absolutely not. I am as sure as I can be that big cats are scratching a living out there somewhere in the UK. When I was working in the Control Room just over a decade ago I took more than one call from concerned members of the public about big cats. At least two I remember were from farmers, good solid practical people who had seen them on their land. And during one night shift get together (we'd got a take away to share) one of my colleagues opened up his conversation with, "You'll never believe what I just saw driving here.....". It turned out that on a quiet and secluded country lane a panther sized, panther looking, big toothed, big black cat had jumped over a Cornish hedge in front of his patrol car. After a split second caught in the headlights (and I like to think a locking of eyes with my colleague - but that's probably poetic license on my part) it jumped over the opposite Cornish hedge and was never seen again. That is unless it's the same one that turned up six years later and scratched a dog in someone's garden.
Anyway, that's it from me about big black cats. Other than to say don't go approaching one if you see it, do let us know it if you are worried about your or anyone else's safety, but don't be surprised if we just take a few details and don't send a helicopter to you with blue flashing lights.