Muddying the waters in the case of big cats however, is the Dangerous and Wild Animals Act, 1976. This famous bill was introduced partly because a fashion had grown up through the 60s and 70s of keeping species such as tigers and lesser big cats as exotic and (fabulously interesting) pets.
Under the act, ownership of such a creature is subject to a successful application for a license to do so. It is held that suddenly beholden to this onerous objective, that big cat keepers of the mid 70s turned the animals loose from their shagpiled residences, rather than go through the official channels.
Cryptozoologists and skeptics alike point to this as a watershed moment for ABCs in Britain. When some louche multi-millionaire of a mid-70s vintage was faced by these regulations, the argument goes, so he stroked his moustache and booted a lion out of his car somewhere on Exmoor where it could make merry with the local sheep and scare the inhabitants out of their wits.
In fact, this scenario presupposes a few things. Firstly, people are very attached to their pets and, by and large, will go to extraordinary lengths to save the life of even a lowly hamster. Writ large through the belief that 1976 Act is behind big cat sightings is proposed the notion that someone who owned a tiger wasn't actually that bothered about it and was happy to let it loose instead of applying for a license.
Secondly, the terms of the act weren't especially onerous. Of course, local authorities might, in their peculiar way, have made it hard to acquire a license, but the terms simply called for adequate food, exercise and security measures to be in place for the sake of the animal, its owner and the public at large. Again, someone owning a tiger is unlikely to have simply kept it in the back garden of their terraced house, unaware of such matters. There may of course have been the odd outliers in terms of husbandry, but any responsible pet owner would keep their charge in decent, humane conditions - making a license application more of a formality than a huge burden on their purse.
Thirdly, the act wasn't merely confined to big cats. Poisonous spiders and snakes... crocodiles and emus... aardvarks and armadillos alike - all were subject to the restrictions of the act. Presumably all were chosen because the authorities knew of cases where such animals were being kept as pets. And yet there was no surge of armadillo sightings after the act was passed - nor any noticeable uptick in pythons eating local school children.
Finally, we know of no known detailed convictions for releasing such an animal. If I released a tiger from my house in Leeds, I would soon be caught and prosecuted, as it would be pretty evident as to who the tiger belonged. There would also be a resultant furore, which again seems conspicuous through its absence.
If no such cases exist, it is another compelling reason to suspect that the beasts were never released in the first place, as postulated by popular theory. A DEFRA study carried out in 2001 into the efficacy of the act noted that:
"There certainly does not seem to be particular concern from unlicensed keepers about getting caught as the fines awarded are usually low, and most local authorities are keen to avoid prosecution if at all possible"
In more specific instances, the problems with act are neatly illustrated here:
We are aware of ten local authorities that have successfully prosecuted people for keeping DWAs without a licence. Only two local authorities have reported the fines imposed, which were both £200 plus costs of £195 and £220 respectively. With some annual licence fees being set at over £400, these fines hardly act as a deterrent.
In short: acquiring a license is often more expensive than paying a fine for not having one! In such a situation, it is hard indeed to picture dozens of people turning cheetahs and panthers loose onto Bexley Heath.
Of course, I make no pretence to know all details of the law or prosecutions thereof, and would welcome any information that readers might have about the issue, but in the main it must be said that the case against the Dangerous and Wild Animals Act rests on pretty shaky foundations.