Big Black Cats & Melanistic Foxes
At Black Foxes UK, we feel it is important the general public are correctly educated about both native fauna and captive bred exotics. Our founder was previously a zookeeper, working with Lynx, Cheetah, Lion and Serval, so has professional experience in both fields to comment as an expert. The recent media drive over the phenomenon of 'big black cat' reports threatens to undermine our years of campaigning to educate the public correctly about melanistic red foxes, so please take note of the following...
Myth and 'British Beasts'
As one of many examples, the original 'Beast of Berkshire' was a sandy coloured house cat that was suspected to be a wildcat (Felis silvestris) and claimed by the public to be a lynx (Lynx lynx) and most likely a Savannah cat (Felis silvestris catus x Lepailurus serval). A new and dubious documentary about 'big black cats' has made claims to suit their agenda and it is stated in the documentary the animal reported in this region was black, suspected to be a melanistic leopard (Panthera pardus).
The terms "apparently" "probably" and "if" are used in all the formal reports and the word 'confirms' is used with 'scare quotes'. This is not proof. There is no way to confirm if the claimed photo is from the UK or if it is a captive or wild animal, it has been suggested the image has been Photoshopped and AI generated animal content it getting harder to distinguish. The image has since been proven to be a fake, with the original image obtained from art.com, in August 2023.
These two species of big cat would not share territory and although they can be hard to document at times, they are not impossible to get on wildlife camera traps. Other large cats elsewhere in the world (including rare melanistic morphs), will frequent feeding stations on a regular basis. With a nation packed of wildlife feeders and surveillance, not to mention hunters, if they were here and breeding in the UK, you wouldn't still be wondering, it's now 2024.
However, there are current exotic animal escapes and we can confirm that these foxes in the image below, are the relatively unknown black 'cat-like' animals that are confirmed to be living in Berkshire. The documentary is claiming such reports in this region are proof of 'big cats', we disagree, we suspect the high incidence of reports may be the result of this large and growing family of melanistic red foxes.
To add to this, despite their name and the dominance of the melanistic morph, 'silver foxes' (the domesticated North American red fox) can be partially melanistic, muted silvers, patterned crosses and a whole host of other variations.
'Big Cats' and Black Foxes UK
The video below, shows an old report from when we first began recording melanism in foxes, in order to prove these sightings were of missing exotic pets that were in need of capture and returning home, (prior to injury) and that melanism in UK foxes will increase if we don't do anything about escapees.
Ten years since they were made, our predictions came into fruition, melanistic foxes (as well as partially melanistic, leucistic and platinum morphs - the latter being a lethal homozygous mutation), exist in every region of the UK and we have 1000's of reports, many with clear footage and photos. As a result, most of the reports we get today are of wild born hybrids (European red fox x captive bred North American red fox) and not missing exotic pets (captive bred North American red fox).
Melanistic foxes exist in much greater numbers than the <0.1% calculated when we began in 2015. We suspect that figure may reach a statistically predictable 2-8% given enough time and that a wider colour and pattern variation (spots, stripes, piebald markings etc.) will be seen within the UK fox population than was historically known.
This is footage of two foxes hunting in a field, one is red, the other is melanistic. This is not evidence of a big cat, it is evidence that along with the UK public, UK animal experts are lacking vital information.
The video depicted in the image below shows a black animal in a field. This animal is not a 'big cat' but it does appear to be a possible black fox. This region has a high concentration of melanism in its fox population compared to other regions, we suspect escapees like Wilf and Kit (along with several others), are behind this trend.
Historically, it was the hunts that reported unusual foxes in the peaks, we suspect they were potential escapees from fur farms at the time or deliberate releases of captive bred foxes for the hunt to find, a practice that still occurs today.
Another example of the media misleading public perception promoting known foxes as 'big cats' in Cheshire. This is why these foxes are increasing across the UK, escaped exotics are not accurately identified and are left to roam and breed, while keepers are left unaccountable for abandoning their animals or are left unassisted (many keepers will immediately act to get the lost animal home but there are few that can actually assist in these situations).
Silver foxes are a little more complex than other exotic animal species kept because the non-native North American red fox and the native European red fox are both considered 'vulpes vulpes' and we cannot yet genetically identify native foxes and their hybrids from captive bred foxes in the UK (Black Foxes UK provides confirmation to officials for difficult cases). Many people in the UK are not aware these foxes exist and the over-promotion of 'big cats' is conditioning in an incorrect education of changing UK fauna.
Silver Fox DNA Tests
UK genetic databases are also lacking vital information on melanistic foxes in the UK. This makes it very difficult for melanistic North American red foxes to be accurately identified by genetic testing. Suspected hybrid foxes were tested upon our suggestion in 2021. Given their behaviour and presentation to the animal rescue, there was a high chance these were not native red foxes but red morph silver foxes or a hybrid of such. The rescue did not want to release non-native, captive-bred animals, if it were the case. The result only confirmed 'fox'.
As another example, an escaped silver fox was involved in an RTA in Bassingbourne in 2012, despite clearly being a captive bred silver fox to those who knew they existed, the animal was DNA tested and it was decided it was a fox-raccoon dog hybrid, due to the test results. This escaped silver fox was actually one of two out at the time, known to Black Foxes UK. Creating hybrids between foxes and raccoon dogs is not possible, they are different species. The incorrect result occurred because UK scientists and genetic databases lack information about the UK's melanistic foxes. The fox lived with a raccoon dog, so it is also possible it was a contaminated sample.
'Big Cat' DNA Tests
"In 2011, Durham University did DNA testing on hairs from North Devon that belonged to a leopard. That said, FactCheck at Channel 4 pointed out that Durham University confirmed the hairs “were probably from a leopard”…but there was no way to prove they were found in Devon (Worrall 2012).
Meanwhile, DNA testing in 2012 on two deer carcasses from Gloucestershire ended up just showing fox DNA, though locals blamed a big cat". We suspect this is a black fox, they are known to the region and it would explain the result and public perception.
'Operation Big Cat', conducted in 1999 (when foxes were becoming part of the exotic pet scene), determined that; "The only data on the third gene, cyt. b, are present for fox... more interesting or surprising are the results for sample 7. According to the cyt. b test, the species should be fox. However, products with both carnivore and puma primers revealed cat-like sequences. More precisely, the best fit (rank 1) of this sequence was with that of a domestic cat.. Therefore again, no indication of puma DNA. Maybe the fur sample is mixed and contains hair from fox and... cat"
Hair Raising Claims
"The investigation in 2017 began when the Gloucestershire farmer found one of his lambs dead. Through social media, documentary filmmaker Matthew Everett got in touch with the farm and came to investigate the site. Everett’s team took swabs and sent them to Warwick University for testing, with no results."
The documentary provides no confirmation of 'big cats' in the UK and the evidence and is akin to the 'Bigfoot DNA Reveal' documentary, being debunked by several respected experts since it's release. The production also appear to be using a promotional campaign that involves placing 2D cut-outs in different locations, which we consider a manipulative advertising tactic.
A photograph allegedly showing a blue-eyed melanistic leopard in the UK (Dragonfly Films)
'Big Cats' Breeding in the UK
"Of course, any big cats released in the years following the introduction of the [Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976] would now be dead. Unless they had bred successfully, current sightings can only be of cats which have either escaped or been released in recent years [(Modification) Order 2007)]... Interestingly, Burton offers a 'simple answer' to the question. On his web page, Big Cats in Britain, he writes that the cats are, 'close relatives of the Hound of the Baskervilles.'
"These 'mysterious black dogs' usually had supernatural characteristics and death often followed a sighting. Burton feels that these spectral hounds have simply metamorphosed into big cats. So is the 'Lindsey Leopard' the result of overactive [collective] imaginations?" *
*Some members of our organisation have aphantasia, which means they are unable to create mental images in their minds. Around 1-5% are thought to have aphantasia, with the other 95-99% being able to create mental images to various degrees, the other extreme being hyperphantasia. For non-aphants, when a belief is strong, we can sometimes subconsciously impose that visual belief onto reality, which is where the term "you were seeing things" stems from, but for aphants, the phrase was always considered a figure of speech for just being wrong.
We suspect that the over promotion of 'Big Cats' in the UK and the lack of knowledge of melanistic red foxes and other exotic pets is why some people may imprint the idea of seeing a 'big cat' onto strange and difficult to explain encounters, when no 'big cat' was present.
We instinctively know that if big cats are here as claimed, they must be breeding and that there must be cubs. As a result, what looks like a young calf or buffalo, a boar (the Cheshire stadium 'cat'), the nose of a Dartmoor pony, big dogs, what appears to be the legendary 'sitting bull' having a scratch (if it isn't a large dog or goat), the sound of ostrich or rhea, large house cats, missing exotic cats, even stuffed toys, are often confused for being 'big cats' as people seek evidence for these mythical beasts.
Many large and hybrid species of domestic cat exist and are legally kept, without restriction (with the exception of the Serval and their F1 offspring), though few are given permission to roam due to their value. Such cats are often maintained in elaborate 'catios' and are walked on a harness and lead. When they do escape or are given freedom to roam, they can be an unusual sight to see, however, if they are escapees, someone will be desperately looking for them before they come to harm.
One of the escaped exotic species that is now established and breeding in the UK (along with grey squirrels), is the North American red fox (silver, red, cross and captive bred morphs). The increase in melanism in foxes in the UK is because these escapees have the ability to breed with our native fox, passing on their melanistic and selectively bred genetics. They appear to breed 'like for like' and as a result, the rate of melanism in UK foxes (as well as other colour morphs), is increasing quickly in some areas. A similar situation occurred with melanistic North American grey squirrels.
Foxes and Folklore
There is a sort of 'cultural amnesia' over silver foxes and our use of them, indeed, there is a lot of history with the fox in the UK that we would prefer to forget. Could it be that 'devil dogs' and 'big black cats' are one and the same 'elusive black fox', that has been present in the UK since the early 1900's for breeding and could potentially have existed within the native population throughout history?
We suspect this mythical shape-shifting fox (as was common folklore throughout history; such as the fox-changing witches of Kirtlington), could also be connected to the extinct Greyhound fox; a British 'mountain fox' that once roamed our highlands. It is a large silvery 'cat-like canid' with a 'blood curdling' cry after all and sightings often occur in areas there were once UK fur farms and there was once a time we released exotic mammals to entertain the hunting elites.
Could this be the 'Black Shuck'?
Current Escaped Exotics
The current trend for the private keeping of large exotic mammals began in the early 2000's when the government banned fur farming and relaxed DWA laws, with no provision for these species when they require assistance. The RSCPA, local animal wardens and most other UK wildlife organisations do not have the training, resources or facilities to assist these animals when they do escape and there are few UK organisations that educate on their correct management and care.
"The scope of the Act is being amended by this Order to include animals not currently listed in the Schedule and also to remove those animals currently listed which are no longer deemed to present a genuine threat to the public. Such amendments to the Schedule were suggested in responses received during a public consultation exercise and agreed upon following consideration by a selected group of animal experts... All of the responses to the consultation (107 in total made up: 36 from local authorities; 37 from organisations and 34 from individuals) favoured the Government’s preferred option... Only two responses argued there should be no species removed from the list..."
"The species covered by the Act was last amended in 2007.. Further reforms were made to the Act in 2010.. [and separate reforms] came into force in October 2018, anyone trading in pets both online and offline is now subject to the same licensing conditions as other breeders and pet shops"
There has been lacking support for the species since they were removed off the schedule, with only the Animal Welfare Act to protect their welfare and few organisations that are able to assist with the issues captive-bred exotic mammals present. Foxes have even less protections as exotic pets or wildlife and the confusion over the species status of captive-bred foxes only compounds this.
In all the years that have passed, it doesn't make sense there are all these 'big black cat' reports and very few black fox ones (around 1 report every 10-20 years, from our own personal research). By the number of reports per year we now get (300-400/yr for Black Foxes UK and a reported 500-600/yr for the Big Cat organisations), 'big black cats' are statistically more common than black foxes, yet it is easy for us to prove these elusive animals exist across the UK.
Proving captive bred lynx and serval have escaped and been found is not proof of melanistic leopards or other such big cats living and breeding in the wild in the UK (deceased and frozen animals cannot be discounted as being obtained, legally or illegally, for taxidermy purposes). Neither of those species exist in the UK in melanistic form, even in collections and it is deemed only 6 lynx could be sustainable in the UK, if they were to be released. As with the silver fox escapees, it is proof that private keepers and collections are not accountable for any escapes and that licensing authorities (import authorities) and animal welfare organisations are failing DWA species, as well as the non-DWA species that were removed off the schedule in 2007.
Promoting fantasies about big black cats, panthers or leopards living and breeding in the wild in the UK since the 1960's is an injustice to current escaped exotics and our native fauna, not to mention miseducation of the general public. It appears that after decades of big cat research, the null hypothesis has proved itself. Zoo and exotic pet escapes are a much bigger issue than the myth of 'big black cats'.
The issue of escaped exotics, the lack of reporting such escapes and the rescue organisations that refuse to assist these animals when they are roaming, needs addressing in its own right and failing keepers, collections and licencing authorities must be held accountable or as originally feared, nature will Rewild Britain with the nations escaped exotics.
Several of the exotic mammal species kept can breed with native species, however, admixture from the North American red fox has been occurring for at least a century, in one form or another. Our fox also only exists here today, as a result of imports that occurred throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as a way of managing over-hunting.