Britain’s “Big Cat” Conundrum

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Thinking of the wild English countryside might conjure up images of manor houses, green fields, and secret gardens; lions, tigers, and bears are from a different kind of story—but that's not actually so, according to a recent discovery by a team of researchers. The team analyzed the skeleton and mounted skin of a previously unidentified animal in the basement of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and have found it to be a Canadian lynx, a cousin to housecats and cheetahs and tigers—oh my.

A previous curator of the Bristol Museum had mislabeled the specimen as a Eurasian lynx, a close-but-not-quite-right identifier for the species of “big cat.” The records also indicated that the museum had acquired the animal’s body in the early 1900s, after a Devonshire landowner shot the creature for having killed two of his dogs—a surprisingly domestic end for an animal more likely to be found roaming in dense forests under the cover of deep snow.

The Canadian lynx obviously isn’t a species native to Britain, so how did it get there if not by boat or plane? British big cats are something of an anomaly to begin with: Reports come in every so often of one having been sighted in the wild, despite the impossibility of any natural animal migration to the island, but the Bristol Museum’s long-dead specimen is one of the only definitive cases subjected to scientific scrutiny. One hypothesis traces the surge in non-native species like various big cats to the time of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, passed when the worrying trend of imported exotic pets threatened to infringe on public safety. That is, traveling by boat or plane may be exactly how Canadian lynxes got to England. Spooked by the threat of regulation and hefty fines, owners then irresponsibly released foreign creatures into the British wild.

The museum’s lynx acquisition, however, dates from 1903—proof that big cats have roamed English soil for over a century, long before the 1976 law might have convinced tiger-owners to set their pets free. The origins of Britain’s big cats, and Bristol’s one Canadian lynx, remain a mystery.