Is Britain Ready for the Return of the Big Cat?

Rewilding England’s dwindling lynx population is about more than conservation. It’s about connecting to a long-lost sense of enchantment with nature.

A Eurasian Lynx. Photo by dogrando via Flickr

Back in 2012, residents at a caravan park in the British countryside called the local authorities with an urgent concern: a lion was prowling through the woods and fields nearby. The police deployed two helicopters with infrared sensors and swept the woods, while handlers on the ground from a local zoo weeded through the forest, armed with tranquilizers. But the hunt fizzled out. What would later be known as the Essex Lion turned out to be a local woman’s pet, a big Maine Coon affectionately known as “Teddy Bear.”

Teddy Bear’s story taps into the oversized role big cats play in the British imagination. Back when the U.K. was more like Game of Thrones than Downton Abbey, the island was full of predators: wolves, bears, and yes, big cats. A seventh-century Welsh poem contains one of the last surviving historical British references to the lynx, a pointy-eared feline up to three-and-a-half feet long that was hunted to extinction on the island over 1300 years ago. Bears and wolves have gone the same route. These predators were instrumental in maintaining the natural world around them. They preyed on smaller mammals, animals that can throw off entire ecosystems when their populations are left unchecked. But in a modern twist, marrying conservation and inspiration, returning some of these large predators to Britain may become a reality within a decade. Riding on a “rewilding” wave that has been successful in places across the U.K. and Europe, conservation groups are advocating reintroducing the Eurasian lynx back to Britain.

“I see rewilding as the mass restoration of ecosystems, of which the reintroduction of keystone species is a critically important component,” says George Monbiot, author of Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. “For me, rewilding is a process without an end point. We’re not trying to create a new fixed state of nature; we’re trying to allow natural processes to resume. In many ways, the process is the outcome. We want to allow nature to continue to undergo dynamic cycles of change and succession, rather than trying to freeze it in any one point, as all too often conservation attempts do.”

The Eurasian Beaver. Image by Per Harald Olsen via Wikimedia Commons

Rewilding is having something of a historical moment throughout Europe. Many argue that it’s urgently needed in the British Isles, which have suffered from years of intrusive human depletion on ecosystems where wetlands and forests were once abundant. Scotland’s Trees for Life has planted more than a million trees across 1000 square miles of wilderness, reforesting a denuded landscape in the rugged and sparsely populated Scottish Highlands. After humans hunted beavers to extinction 400 years ago in Britain, a reintroduction in Scotland ended this May after a five-year trial and a final report to the Scottish Government. The government will decide later this year whether to expand reintroduction, halt it, or continue to study the beavers. Like lynx, beavers are keystone species that provide critically important ecological services. In the trial period, the beavers significantly contributed to the health of local woodlands along loch shores. The level of water in the lochs also rose due to the beaver dams, increasing the health and diversity of aquatic species. There have even been unofficial or accidental reintroductions that show the viability of wild beavers. All across the British Isles, there is work to reinstate natural processes, which can mean projects like these, restoring wetlands, or even renaturalizing the course of rivers.

But it’s the big cats that really grab people’s attention. After being hunted nearly to extinction in Europe, the size and range of the Eurasian lynx has rebounded, with a European population around 8,000, and an estimated population of 30,000 in Russia.

“Lynx are a priority species for us—we think after the beaver, they are the next great challenge that we want to achieve,” Monbiot tells me. “A keystone species is an ecological engineer which shapes the ecosystem, and allows many other species to survive there. So I do see species such as the lynx and the wolf and the beaver and the boar as being very important, if we’re to make major progress on rebuilding some of the greatly degraded ecosystems that we face.”

Focusing on returning lynx to the island is as sound ecology as it is a gateway into the public imagination. There are plenty of scientific studies that show how the lynx can help keep roe deer populations in check, which would be a huge help to a British countryside overrun with deer. The Lynx UK Trust (LUKT) grabbed headlines earlier this year when they announced plans to reintroduce the feline on three private estates. And although some media suggested 18 lynx could be brought over to the UK by the end of 2015, Monbiot suggests that the reality is more likely a decade. The long process of public persuasion and licensing has only recently begun.

A poster enourages reporting big cat sightings in Sussex. Image via Twitter user @CartridgeInk1

But the project of rewilding, as expressed by Monbiot and others, also strives to recreate a sense of enchantment with nature, to rearticulate the feeling of awe too often lost or forgotten in an urban culture. Already, there is a new spate of supposed big cat sightings across the UK. Many Britons believe exotic cats roam the countryside after their owners were forced to release them following the Dangerous Wild Animals Act passed in 1976. Self-titled big cat spotters patrol rural fields with an eye out for roaming predators, while a plethora of homemade websites have been set up to prove the cats’ existence. Mistaking domesticated cats like Teddy Bear for savage predators is clearly the expression of a hidden desire to find something wild within the mundane. Rewilding promises to turn that desire into a reality.

“My contention is the paranormal phenomenon of big cat sightings … expresses a subliminal desire for a natural world that is richer and wilder than the one we now have in Britain,” said Monbiot. Rewilding may be the very natural extension of the type of hope that accompanies spotting big, exotic predators in the otherwise tame countryside. It may also ultimately help efforts to win the public over to a wilder British future. “The important thing is public advocacy and persuasion. We have to win people over to the idea of bringing these species back, because it should never be done against public opinion; it should always be done with a great majority of people behind it.”

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

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For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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