I write a blog for Animal Planet called Animal Oddities and I often feature stories of animals that show up in odd places. Despite such entertaining fare as toilet-diving sloths and bar-hopping monkeys, by far the stories that get the most reaction out of people are the ones about sightings of big cats in places where they shouldn't exist.
There are big cat species native to several continents. Africa has lions, cheetahs and leopards. There are also small populations of lions and cheetahs in Asia, as well as leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards and of course, tigers. The Americas have jaguars and mountain lions, which are also known as cougars, panthers, catamounts or pumas. (There are a few dozen small cat species around the globe; bobcats, servals, ocelots, wildcats, jaguarundis and fishing cats are just a few.) But there are no big cats native to Australia and those that were once found in Europe and the eastern half of North America have been wiped out by people.
Or have they? Almost monthly, sightings of big cats are reported in places where there are no officially documented populations, most commonly in Australia, Great Britain and eastern North America, including such unlikely places as the woods of suburban New Jersey.
What's going on? Are people really seeing what they think they are seeing, and if so, where are these big cats coming from? Are they expanding their range and colonizing new areas? In western North America, due to better hunting regulations and habitat protection, both mountain lions and jaguars seem to slowly be moving back into habitat where they were once wiped out, but that's not really a plausible explanation in Europe, Australia and most of the eastern United States.
It's more likely that many of these sightings are of animals that have either escaped or were deliberately released from captivity and are surviving in the countryside. For example, it's widely believed that the passing of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in the UK in 1976, which regulated the ownership of potentially dangerous wildlife, led to the release of dozens, if not hundreds, of captive big cats into the woods and moors of Great Britain. In Australia, big cat presence is often explained by the release of animals that were kept as mascots by the American military stationed there during World War II. No one knows how many big cats are kept as pets by private citizens in the United States, but some estimates put the number in the tens of thousands and it's quite plausible that some of those animals have escaped or been released on purpose.
As a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, I think there's also something else at play with these sightings. In my experience, the majority of people in westernized countries are extremely poor at identifying wildlife, particularly estimating the size and species of an animal. It's a sad reality that today most kids spend the majority of their time indoors and are growing up into adults who are no longer knowledgeable about the anatomy, signs, range and behavior of their native wildlife.
This is why most wildlife professionals take sightings by the public with a very large grain of salt, which of course leads to great frustration on the part of the people who truly believe they've sighted a big cat, and is the source of many a conspiracy theory. But it's just a fact that it's probably more likely that people who believe they saw a big cat where it shouldn't exist actually have just misidentified a dog, a large house cat, a wild small cat (such as a bobcat), or even a deer, than it is that there are big cats in these places.
That said, it's possible that at least some of these sightings are actually big cats. The real question is whether or not these animals are breeding and establishing populations, which seems very unlikely based on the available evidence (or lack thereof).
Until there is incontrovertible evidence of these big cats, the official stance from wildlife agencies will likely remain one of doubt. Even if an animal is trapped, shot, killed by a vehicle or clearly captured on video, wildlife professionals will still probably do nothing unless a breeding population is established and needs to be managed.
One thing is certain, though: whether or not there are truly big cats roaming and breeding in places they shouldn't exist, something about the idea triggers a strong emotional reaction in people whether they believe they've seen one of these elusive creatures or not.
VIDEO: In news clip below from Missouri, there's no denying the existence of the big cat in the video. It's either a melanistic leopard or jaguar (I can't tell for sure from this grainy footage), otherwise known as a "black panther." It's almost certainly an escaped "pet." The footage definitely gets the adrenaline pumping, but rest assured, even if big cats are indeed living in places where they shouldn't exist, chances of this happening to you are very, very slim.