Up close and personal with big cats near St Albans
PUBLISHED: 12:02 06 April 2017 | UPDATED: 12:20 06 April 2017
Sceptical incredulity, bemused curiosity, and barely concealed delight is a standard reaction here at the Herts Ad office every time another witness comes forward to talk about their sighting of the supposed beast prowling the fields of Hertfordshire.
“Another one?”, my cynical colleague scoffs. “Show me a picture, then I’ll believe it.”
But I am not so confident - a Freedom of Information request late last year revealed there have been nearly 30 sightings of a big cat around the district - including Wheathampstead, St Albans, and Sandridge - reported to Herts Police in the past five years, and eyewitnesses I have spoken to do not seem delusional.
They all swear it is huge and feline, and they have not read our stories before stumbling across the big cat.
If anybody should know if they have seen a big cat, it is Dr Terry Moore, honorary director of Welwyn-based charity The Cat Survival Trust - he reports two close-up encounters with pumas in Hatfield, among other sightings.
So when my editor suggested I go to the trust to meet him and all the rescued cats there, I was thrilled.
The 41-year-old charity houses more than 10 breeds of cat, along with raccoons, lemars and owls, and has been featured on Channel 5, in a seven-part TV series for Animal Planet called the Snow Leopards of Leafy London, and on ITV’s Daybreak.
Animals there enjoy peace and quiet because it is not open to the public - the 12 acre former farmyard site is a rescue and breeding sanctuary for unwanted zoo, confiscated illegal, and endangered animals.
As the only British charity dedicated to wild cat species, the trust started by working to breed endangered species in captivity and then release them into the wild, but this proved difficult as success rates are as low as 15 per cent.
Now, it focuses on buying land where cats and animals can live in a protected ecosystem and increase in numbers.
To this end, Terry and the trust bought a 10,000 acre Argentinian Provincial Park in 1992 and have a research library worth more than £200,000.
Money is needed to fund a new on-site veterinary surgery, to buy a further 30,000 acres of reserve space in seven different countries, and to build new enclosures for the increasing number of animals with nowhere else to go.
For example, two amur leopards call the trust home - there are only 60 of these violent cats left in the wild but Terry cannot breed any more because he does not have space.
The most recent additions to the family are magnificent eagle and tiger owls, brought to Terry from a sanctuary that had to shut in Colchester.
As a cat lover (proud to the voted most likely to be a crazy cat lady when I left school), I was struggling to contain my excitement and actually conduct an interview.
“What are their names?” I ask, maybe becoming too attached. Terry looks confused, “well, this is a European lynx...”
“No, I mean, their names - like, Fluffy? Kitty? Do they have names?”
He smiles, and I think I have won him over: “This is Pudding, and he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Pudding, I learn, often comes and watches TV with Terry, sitting on his lap - he has to wear two pairs of trousers to protect himself against Pudding’s affectionate pawing and massaging.
I watch with fascination and horror as Terry picks Pudding up, and then lets the wild cat groom and lick his beard.
When I get home, cuddling my own cat, I contemplate helping out there myself - anyone who is interested in volunteering or membership should contact Terry on firstname.lastname@example.org
The charity is completely run by unpaid volunteers and would welcome the help.