My Obsession with Big Cats, by Elizabeth Kay

The real thing

My illustration of a lion

It all started with a book I was given as a child, Animal Life of the World. It was published in 1934, and reflects the values and attitudes of the time. The photographs were all in black and white, and the chapter titles were quaintly imaginative. Little Bandits of our Hills and Hedgerows, Leather-sided Giants, Animals Verging on Extinction (the Thylacine was still going at this point), and The Big Cats. I must have been given this book before I could read, because initially I just looked at the pictures. The chapter entitled Big Game of Other Days (note the word game!) fascinated me, with its photographs of model iguanodons and megalosauruses in realistic swampy settings. I couldn’t tell the difference between them and a photograph of a live animal, and I assumed that dinosaurs were alive and well and living in a remote part of Africa, as I’d never seen them at the zoo. The book had a profound effect on me, and I wanted to see all these creatures in their natural habitats. Once I could read, the text was a mine of information, and some pictures caught my imagination more than others.

Cheetah, in Kenya
            There were a lot of lions and tigers and leopards, but the cat that I found the most threatening was the black panther. The legend underneath the photo went as follows: The Black Panther is a powerful creature, very dangerous and liable to become a man-eater. As this animal does not turn even from putrid flesh, the wounds it inflicts on human beings are liable to blood-poisoning.
The Scottish wildcat - the only cat that has
never been tamed by anyone. I saw this one at
the British Wildlife Centre, in Lingfield.
            This now looks like a load of tosh, as the black panther is not a species in its own right, but just a melanistic leopard or jaguar. Jaguars hardly ever attack humans, and are never man-eaters in the sense that the Kumaon man-eaters were. This notorious pair of Indian leopards killed 525 people all told, a decade or so before the book was published, so the events were fresh in people’s memories. Although all cats are opportunistic, putrid flesh isn’t top of the menu, and all wounds inflicted by a bite in a hot climate are liable to infection.
Jaguar, Brazil
These were pre-antibiotic days, as well.
            Nevertheless, as a child I longed for opportunities to see these creatures first-hand, but never thought I’d get the chance when it took six weeks by boat to get to India. It’s a very different matter today, when flights are fast and relatively cheap, but even when I first visited Kenya in 1993 and saw lions for real I never thought I’d get to repeat the experience. Since then, I’ve totted up quite a few big cats. As well as the lions there have been tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, lynxes, servals… But I’ve never managed to see a leopard, after 11 attempts. It’s become a bit of an obsession.
Last year in India...
            Big cats feature a lot in children’s books. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. Adults get a rather more unpleasant version in The Life of Pi. Richard Parker, the tiger, is a much darker character than Tigger. The only time I wrote about a big cat myself was for a radio play that was broadcast in the 1980s. It was about an escaped tiger, and in those days Chessington World of Adventures was Chessington Zoo, so I went there to talk to the tiger keeper. I asked him how long he’d being doing the job, and he said, “Too long.” He regarded the profession as being very dangerous indeed, and it was clear that he was terrified of his charges. My escaped radio tiger didn’t kill anyone, and voluntarily returned to her enclosure where she felt safe.
             These days, I tend to paint the animals I photograph both on holiday and in zoos, and I’ve used them in illustrations for Kindle versions of books published traditionally. A lot of the time I didn’t particularly like the original illustrations, so re-doing them stopped me infringing someone else’s copyright. It faithfully illustrated the text rather than having someone else’s version – which was often inaccurate, as the illustrator hadn’t read it properly,  and it saved me forfeiting royalties for illustrations I resented. The best illustrator I ever had was for a Japanese edition, where every tiny detail was spot-on. I wrote to thank her, heard nothing for six months, and then the original of my favourite picture arrived from her from Japan. I was really touched; what a lovely thing to do.  
The leopard I've yet to see - illustration for Hunted
            There is something very quest-like, about setting out to find and observe a particular animal. Some years ago I decided it was time a saw an adder, our only native venomous snake, in the wild. I covered a lot of south-east England, getting nowhere, until someone suggested the heath section of my local common, ten minutes from where I live. I’ve been watching them ever since, more brightly patterned after shedding their skins in the spring, lively in the height of summer, sluggish and dull-coloured in the autumn. Last year I had my third attempt at seeing tigers in the wild. The first time had been in Karnataka, where I saw pug marks and tiger poo (white with calcium like hyena poo, because they often eat the bones). The second time was Bandhavgarh, where the other two jeeps saw them and we didn’t. The last time was Tadoba, where we saw them every day except for the last, when we saw a sloth bear instead. And yes, it was magical. When this post goes live I will be in Botswana, having yet another go at seeing a leopard.

The Iberian lynx, the rarest big cat in the world. I was lucky enough to see this one in Spain.

So what is it about big cats that makes them so fascinating? Their grace? Their beauty? Their athleticism? I don’t like watching kills on TV, although cats are usually quick and efficient about it and preferable to canines, who aren’t too bothered about whether something is dead before they start eating it. At home, I’m not a cat person. I value the birds in my garden too much. But then, moggy next door isn’t capable of dispatching me with one swipe of her paw. My most memorable big cat moment was when I made eye contact with a tigress. She was only a couple of feet away from me. I was seated in an open-topped jeep, and I could have leaned out and touched her. She considered me briefly although she was, I think, merely curious. But is there any other animal that gets the heart rate going quite so fast?


Griselda Heppel said…
Lovely post, you evoke the beauty and dangerous allure of the big cats perfectly. That face to face encounter with the tiger gives me shivers. Fingers crossed you at last see a leopard!
Elizabeth Kay said…
And here I am, posting from Botswana having seen four separate leopards,two cheetahs, countless lions and a serval.
AliB said…
Fab photos and illustratins. a reminder of the beauty of big cats.
Susan Price said…
I second Ali -- Liz, your illustrations are beautiful. And so glad to hear you saw leopards!
Great pictures, thanks - I love big cats too (and the small ones).
Elizabeth Kay said…
And here I am, posting from Botswana having seen four separate leopards,two cheetahs, countless lions and a serval.

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