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Awad: My close encounter of the kind! FURRED' fact, he's yet to be totally convinced; LARGE BLACK ANIMAL WITH TAIL' SPOTTED BY GRANDAD IS LATEST IN SERIES OF MIDLAND SIGHTINGS.

Byline: MIKE LOCKLEY

AWAD Aboulela couldn't believe his eyes when a "panther" strolled into his Midland garden.

It refused to budge - even when the stunned grandfather clapped his hands.

The 58-year-old said: "It was a black animal, with the same tail of a cat but a much larger size. It had brown stripes. It was there for six or seven minutes.

"I tried to interrupt him by clapping at the window but it did not seem to bother him. I could see his head, ears and neck, but I wanted to look at his face."

Awad contacted police. He said: "I wanted to know how dangerous it is. My three-year-old grandson loves the back garden and I was scared that if it came back, it may attack him. I spoke to Loughborough police station, and they were concerned, and said if I see it again to ring them."

Experts believe the cat had broken cover from nearby railway embankments.

The strange occurrence on Whitehouse Avenue, in Loughborough, at 7am on June 27 is being mew-ted as the latest sighting of the mysterious black cats which have been rumoured to roam the Midlands for years.

It is believed the big black cats travel across railway tracks looking for food.

Awad lives next to the Great Central Railway line and Charnwood Water.

He now sleeps with a camera and video camera by his bedside and is in the process of installing CCTV.

Black cats have been spotted in neighouring Shepshed, Barrow-upon-Soar, The Outwoods and Old Ashby Road over the last few years, but this is the first sighting in some time. One has never been caught on film in the area.

With purrrfect weather tempting monster moggies to pad across patios, more Midlanders are claiming claws encounters of the furred kind. Chris Mullins, head of big cat group Beastwatch UK, has called on Loughborough locals to capture the lynx effect on film after cat scratch fever hit their patch.

Mullins said: "What has been needed for some time is someone who lives near a railway, used or disused, who can capture it on film. It clearly sounds like a hybrid."

If they are out there, the Midlands' big cats certainly get around.

For example, somewhere, amid the desolate undergrowth on the fringes of a Staffordshire former pit town, a lion sleeps tonight.

That's if you believe the clutch of sightings from Saredon, a rural community close to Cannock Chase - the purrrfect prowling ground for big cats.

Panther For the last decade, almost all eyewitnesses accounts from that neck of the woods have described a large, black creature, possibly panther.

The secretive Beast of Saredon is very different - that is why British Big Cat Research, a group dedicated to uncovering the truth, has become involved in the hunt.

And the BBCR tasked their man in the West Midlands, warehouse worker George Heinz, with tracking the tancoloured animal.

He has stood down since the mission.

George, who lives in Brownhills, believes the cat, which first surfaced on January 28, may be a puma.

One stunned member of the public, who has asked not to be named, spotted the elusive animal near the M6 toll, which shoulders Saredon.

He said: "I'd only just turned when I noticed something in the field to my left that looked out of place, so I pulled over to take a look.

"I was amazed to see in the corner of the field what I can only describe as a giant, sandy coloured cat. I would say it was around two to three feet tall and around six feet in length, from head to tail. It stood for a few seconds before disappearing into the field."

He added: "I have lived and worked in the country all my life and have never seen an animal like this one. I am sure it was a large cat."

What is believed to be the same animal made its debut in a Longton, Stoke, garden at 10.45am on August 17 last year. The 22 year-old resident reported: "It ran out of the garden in an arcing path to maximise the distance between us. It was far more startled than you would expect a domestic cat to be.

"Once it got a few driveways down, it stopped for about ten seconds. I saw the short tail and said to my sister that it looked like a lynx."

Reports of a puma have also recently come in from Couden Wedge, Coventry.

The tan-coloured animal cleared a five foot hedge to make good its escape.

Since the sighting, baffled dog-owner say there is a parcel of nearby woodland their petrified pets refuse to enter.

As ever, 28 year-old George - who has yet to spot a big cat - is keeping an open mind.

In fact, he's yet to be totally convinced over the existence of lions, pumas and panthers in our countryside.

"There's very little doubt," he said.

"I'd be more surprised if they weren't out there than if they were.

"Personally, I haven't seen one. There have been times on Cannock Chase when I've seen something out of the corner of my eye, but I can't be 100 per cent sure."

A large percentage of big cat reports filed with BBCR are just that - oversized domestic moggies.

Many of the mammoth paw-prints forwarded to experts have been made by dogs, the outline of claws in the dirt usually giving the game away: cats, unlike canines, have retractable claws which are rarely drawn when walking.

Other prints are made by rabbits.

When sitting, their front legs and rear leave a paw-shaped indentation.

But there is enough hard evidence out there to convince even the most sceptical, BBCR receive 2,000 sightings a year and has 60 infra-red trail cameras placed at hotspots across the country.

Bodies George added: "Bodies have been found. A lynx was shot in 1991.

"No one is 100 per cent sure where these cats have come from. It used to be fashionable to keep them as pets, but the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act introduced licences and made keeping them much more difficult. As a result, some people released their animals into the wild."

That would explain the dip in sightings over recent years, reasoned George. The colony of dumped big cats have died.

"People ask why we're not seeing carcasses of livestock killed by these animals," said George, "which is a good point. It may be they are being stripped by scavengers. They are also nocturnal, which would explain why they are not seen more often."

He urged those on the prowl for panthers to look out for claw marks and not restrict their search to ground level. There have been reports of deer carcasses in trees.

BBCR are also investigating reports of a 'black leopard' in Dudley, seen just over 12 months ago. The eyewitness said: "I was out to lunch with my husband and four friends. I was the only one who saw the cat, which walked along a bank."

CAPTION(S):

BIG CAT SIGHTING: Awad Aboulela. FILM: Chris Mullins, head of Beastwatch UK.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jul 14, 2013
Words:1185
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