In fact, at one time, Surrey was the best county to spot (or hear) big cats. The infamous Surrey Puma sightings of the 1960s led to the first wave of ABC sightings, or, cat flaps, as certain waggish writers dub them (flap being the term in Ufology used to denote an area of high activity).
The puma saga started back in the summer of 1959, when there were a number of reports of strange big cats from the Surrey/Hampshire border, but these were treated with little interest by the local constabulary.
The most vivid account of a sighting came from Mr A Burningham, who was driving along a country lane one evening in August 1959. He suddenly saw what he described as an enormous great cat crossing the road, some 40 yards ahead of him.
The cat was approximately the size of a Labrador dog, but possessed a definite feline gait. Burningham stopped his car and observed the cat crouching in some trees watching lambs in an adjacent field. After a while, the animal moved out of sight and Burningham drove on, dismissing the sighting as some strange quirk or other. It wasn't until three years later, in 1962, when a local newspaper report of a similar sighting was published, that Burningham came forward with his own sighting.
The 1962 sighting was deemed to be the first official sighting of the mysterious feline which became known as the Surrey Puma. Ernest Jellett, a water board worker, was walking up a country lane towards the Heathy Park Reservoir on the North Downs, not far from Farnham, when he was astonished, and more than a little frightened, to see a huge, cat like animal pursuing a rabbit down the lane toward him! Jellett shouted at the cat, which, obviously frightened, bounded off into the undergrowth at one side of the lane. Jellett described the animal thus, it had a sort of round, flat face, like a big cat, and its tail was long and thin, not bushy. It had big paws.
The police took Jellett's story seriously and investigated in the lane, where they found a patch of flattened undergrowth where a large animal could have rested.
The following year there were two sightings of the mysterious Shooters Hill Cheetah in South East London. The first sighting was reported by a lorry driver, the second by a police officer in a patrol car. The big cat in fact leapt straight over the bonnet of the patrol car before the astonished PC's eyes. As the sighting was recorded by a police officer, it seemed to carry enormous credibility. This, compiled with the strange goings on in Surrey was what prompted the massive cheetah hunt in July 1963. However. even this comprehensive hunt failed to produce any trace of the animal.
Back in Surrey, in 1964, local people began to file reports of hearing terrible howling noises at night, quite unlike any animal sounds they had ever heard or were used to. A herd of cattle stampeded out of their field, frightened by some strange animal. A steer was found dead in nearby woods, badly mauled and bitten. A vet who examined the carcass said that, in his professional opinion. the wounds had been caused by an animal which was not to be found in this country.
Following this, paw prints were discovered in several different locations across the county, whilst sightings of big cats abounded, mainly referring to the animal as a small lion of a sandy colour. The big cat gained various nick names, inspired by local journalists who had found a source of copy more interesting than the local parish council meetings or petty sessions. As well as the Surrey Puma, the animal or animals (it was reckoned there had to be more than one given the geographic diversity of sightings) also became known as the Crondal Cougar and the Munstead Monster.
Still, the appellation of Surrey Puma was the one that really stuck and indeed, withstood the test of time. In 1966. a couple of blurred photographs of big cats were taken, but it is impossible to discern from these whether vr not the animal shown is indeed, a cat, let alone whether it is a big one or not.
The authorities pretty much denied the existence of any wild animals roaming the Surrey countryside. One favourite theory mooted at the time was that one. two or possibly three puma cubs had been released into the wild by a private collector in the late 1950s, which accounted for the diversity of the sightings. Mild weather, a plentiful supply of wild game such as rabbits and birds, together with farm livestock could keep an adult puma going very nicely for several years. Also with plenty of woodland cover, a puma could remain undetected for years on end.
One big cat was allegedly shot by a farmer in 1968, although no body was released for examination. After 1968, the puma sightings decreased. This wasn't the end of the mystery however, as a set of large cat like paw prints were photographed in the snow laying in the Fraser family's back garden in December 1970. This was almost sinister proof that the puma was still out there somewhere.
Sightings continued on and off over the next decade, although not with the same intensity those during the early to mid 1960s.
The phenomena of the mystery cats was largely forgotten until the mid 1970s. In June 1974, near Beith in Ayrshire, a motorist pulled up sharply when he found a large cat sitting in the road. The cat refused to move, simply growling at both car and driver. Eventually, the driver carefully manoeuvred the car around the animal and sped off.
Two years later, in August 1976, just South of Glasgow, a strong animal ripped its way through a high wire fence to attack some geese. In Taysicle. a woman heard her dog barking excitedly in the garden. Concerned, she hurried out to be confronted hy a huge cat like animal crouched upon her garden wall. Over the period of four or five years, there were sketchy reports ot a puma spotted regularly in the North Berwick area, along with several sightings around Ayr.
In November 1979. a strange cat was reported on the A839 near Muie, said to be the size of a labrador dog with black fur, but a distinctly feline face. After this, local folk in the area gleefully began to produce photographs of their big cat. One of these was dismissed by officials at Glasgow Zoo as a staged picture using a large domestic cat.
During 1980, there were several puma sightings throughout Scotland, with the resultant disappearance of farm livestock. However. matters came to a head in October 1980 with the strange case of the Cannich puma.
Farmer Ted Noble grew so angry at finding his sheep mauled and killed by the puma, together with growing frustration at the authorities' failure to take the matter seriously, Noble set his own trap for the animal. He constructed his own cage, baited it with a sheep's head and waited. On October 29th, Noble realised that without a doubt. he had captured a big cat. He notified the press, who arrived en masse to photograph the beast, which was reported to be snarling and vicious.
The cat was identitied as a female puma and was transported, very carefully, by police to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie. However, far from being snarling and vicious the animal was described by Head Keeper, Gary Batters as being very overweight and very tame. Batters added, it would seem that somebody had wanted to be rid of an unwanted pet and so released the animal. only for it to be captured very soon after.
The puma was christened Felicity and, by dint of her capture and the publicity surrounding it, became quite a celebrity in her own right. She was a firm favourite with visitors to the Highland Wildlife Park, where she remained until her death on 30th January 1985. In fact, Felicity can still be seen, her body was stuffed and mounted and now resides in the Inverness Municipal Museum.
The Felicity case has long been held to be either wholly or partly faked. soon after Felicity was captured, it was reported that some eye witnesses had seen a puma in a cage being driven around the area in a pick-up truck, although this could have been prior to the animal's release. Strangely enough, reports of pumas in the Cannich area continued for a considerable time after Felicity's capture, which led some experts to express the view that Felicity's arrival was merely coincidental to the presence of a genuine wild colony of pumas in the area.