And since cancer and rising house prices don't do it any more...
My worst fears nearly became a chilling reality last week when two girls, Kim Howells, 15, and her cousin Sophie Gwynne, eight, were stalked in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire - by what appears to have been a huge black cat.Well, if that didn't catch the attention of the police, I don't know what would! Do you have a confession to make, Mark..?
Kim described the ‘panther’ as about the size of a Great Dane. ‘We cut through the brambles and just started running,’ she reported afterwards.
When they arrived home, their feet were cut and bleeding. Sophie was in tears. But what really brought this strange case home to me was the fact that if they had come to any real harm, I would have felt responsible.
For six months earlier, I had visited the same spot near Cinderford while making a TV film about leopards around the world, including a short section about the (I thought unlikely) possibility of them living in the UK.Say one thing for him, he knows how to lead into a story. 'I could tell you, but then I'd have to...'
In the end, fearful of causing public alarm, I chose not to use any of the extraordinary evidence I gathered.
For the truth is I may well know the ‘mythical’ beast that chased them. Danny Nineham, the region’s local big cat enthusiast, showed me evidence of its existence when I was there last autumn. And it’s a black leopard — nicknamed Boris.Damn! Does every region require a 'local big cat enthusiast'? Is there a grant for it? Sounds like a cushy job.
‘He’s huge, even for a male leopard,’ Nineham told me. ‘I’ve recorded many sightings of him. He’s dangerous, in my view. More so than any of the other leopards living and breeding wild in the Forest of Dean, or around the country.’
Nineham works with the authorities, logging the details. He collects possible hair and droppings samples, makes plaster casts of suspected paw prints, and sets up camera traps, all in the hope he can prove once and for all that Britain is stalked by big cats.Ah, ok, maybe not.
And I suspect 'works with the authorities' is code for raised eyebrows at the local police station and a 'Oh, it's this nutter again...'
...we planned to interview Nineham as one of these eccentric believers and had lined up the wildlife liaison officer at Gloucestershire police, Mark Robson, to balance his claims./facepalm
Amazingly, however, he did no such thing. In fact, as I listened gobsmacked, Robson told me that most big cat sightings really are of leopards, and that there are enough eyewitness reports to follow individual animals’ movements on a map.
Let's hope his boss is reading this over his cornflakes. I can foresee a dressing-down on the horizon for Mark 'I Like To Have Fun With Journalists' Robson...
Many suspected sightings, after all, tend to be domestic cats, mangy foxes, even stuffed toys....
As eminent mammal expert Professor Stephen Harris told me: ‘Black always looks bigger in the dark.’
OK, I'm not touching that one!
I have to agree with him, the last thing we want is conclusive proof, telling us where and when these creatures appear in precise detail. Our record of living with large animals, however rare and beautiful, is not good.Because it's not enough that we worry our kids about paedophiles, traffic, gangs, etc. We should tell them to be on the lookout for non-native predatory wildlife, too.
But I do think that we should be aware that these extraordinary animals are probably out there, somewhere. And it is right that people such as those two little girls should know what they might meet on a Sunday walk.