A British truck driver named Kevin Fillary claims to have spotted a mysterious “large black panther” around mid-afternoon in a rural field near Dorchester, England.

According to a story in the Dorset Echo, “Mr. Fillary, of Somerset, said: ‘I was driving along and I looked to my left and spotted a large black panther. When I’m in my lorry I’m high up so I could see over into the field and I could see the creature clearly. I travel down that road every working day and have done for the past four years but this is the first time I’ve seen a big cat.’ He added: ‘I just wish I’d had time to take a photo but I was driving and had to move on.’”

Fillary noted that he’d previously seen another strange big cat on the prowl while making his rounds not far away in Ilminster, but that he’d been reluctant to report the sighting for fear that people would think he was crazy. After all, black panthers are not native to the British Isles, and any verified sighting would be both mysterious and historic.

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Yet Fillary is hardly alone; there have been dozens of big cat — often referred to as ABC, or Alien Big Cat — sightings over the past decade in Dorset and surrounding areas.

Zoologists doubt that such panthers exist wild in the region, though some may be escaped exotic pets; as recently as the 1970s it was legal (and fashionable) for the wealthy to keep menageries of lions, tigers, and other wild animals on rural farms. Some of them may have escaped or been released into the wild and been responsible for many of the early sightings.

It’s not as unlikely as it may seem. In October 2011 an Ohio man released his private menagerie of exotic animals into the wild before killing himself. In all nearly 60 animals including wolves, grizzly bears, lions, Bengal tigers, leopards and monkeys scattered into the woods outside of Columbus.

There are many other cases similar to these, and likely even more that go unreported. Some people whose exotic pets escape may not want to report it to police for fear that they will be fined or jailed (either for illegally keeping them in the first place, or for allowing them to escape), or that their animal will be shot and killed. Some of these events may be responsible for reports of mysterious or unknown animals around the world.

The Essex Lion

Last year reports of a lion on the loose in the countryside of Essex, England, sparked a massive search for the mysterious feline. Police and sharpshooters were dispatched as locals and tourists were urged to stay inside and be cautious.

Though some of the reports were hoaxes, several apparently sincere eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the lion first-hand. One person said that “A man started running towards us yelling, ‘It’s a f—— lion!’ He looked so panicked, you knew it was not a joke. The lion, you could see it from the side. … I grabbed my children’s hands, and we ran towards our caravan. My children started to scream, “Daddy, is the lion going to get us?” It was one million percent a lion. It was a tan color with a big mane; it was fully grown; it was definitely a lion.”

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Essex police stated that following an extensive search of the area using helicopters, mounted police, infrared cameras and foot searches, they found no evidence of any lion or other mysterious cat: “We believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat. Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to; yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area.”

An Essex woman later identified her Maine Coon housecat (which is one of the world’s largest domestic breeds) named Teddy Bear as the “Essex Lion” that briefly terrorized the area. She noted that Teddy Bear — whose light color and heavy coat make him appear even larger than he really is — often wanders into the nearby field where the “lion” was seen and photographed.

“From the picture, he’s identical,” she said. “He’s big, he’s always out in the fields.”

It’s likely the “lion” was indeed Teddy Bear, or another large domestic cat whose size was unconsciously exaggerated by witnesses. People are simply not very good at estimating the size of objects, especially when they are excited or alarmed. Unknown objects may seem larger than they actually are, and details can become confused.

In a few cases lynxes have been found or captured; but in most cases, as with Fillary’s sighting, the furtive feline disappeared without leaving any hard evidence of its identity.

It may be sighted again and trapped — or it may be curled up at the foot of its owner’s bed somewhere in Dorset.

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