Copyright 2003, Sarah Hartwell

According to the local paper, the story was this:-

Cat Rescue Worker Bitten by Big Cat. A cat rescue worker called out by a Springfield resident found herself facing a big cat. John Wren, 32, had phoned Cats Protection about the creature which had torn its way into the chicken pen housing his collection of Dorchester, Buff Orpingtons and Cotswold Legbar laying hens. "I was surprised that she arrived with nothing more than a wire cage. It was a bloody great creature and it had somehow forced its way through the mesh to get in with the chickens."

Mr Wren lost one of his prized Cotswold Legbar hens (registered as a rare breed) to the marauding big cat which he described to reporters as a large black creature with glowing yellow eyes. "I thought she was rather brave to tackle it without Kevlar gloves."

After savaging the rescuer's arm, the big cat made its escape and entered the Wrens' home where Mrs Denise Wren, 29, was cooking lunch. "It was probably attracting to the smell of the lamb joint I was cooking. It came right in, bold as brass, and sat staring at me from the corner of the kitchen."

Cat worker Susan Smith, 40, required several stitches to her left hand. A serious bite had damaged tendons "the cat's teeth had actually met through the flesh of my hand and had snagged the tendon." Doctors told her that she had been lucky not to lose the use of two fingers. Despite this, she brushed off her injuries as an occupational hazard and told The Weekly News "It must have been quite familiar with people to go into the house like that. As it turned out, the cat was actually quite tame but was obviously upset when I tried to handle it and had simply defended itself."

No-one has yet come forward to claim the animal.

The incident even made a few (highly inaccurate) lines in some journal of the unexplained.

"Animal Control Worker bitten by Springfield Panther. England, October 2001: Susan Smith, 40, was attacked and mauled by a big cat which was raiding her chicken farm. Black big cat captured, owner not traced. Ms Smith, commended for her bravery, required surgery for severe injuries to her arms after defending herself from attack. Doctors operated to save her left hand.."

The truth, as usual, was about as far removed from those tales of slavering black panthers as it is possible to be. It had started with the usual "Help I've found a stray cat and it has to be dealt with immediately" type of call; in this case the call being from a bemused, rather than agitated, Mr Wren.

"It's not actually bothering the hens, it's just taken up residence in one of their nesting boxes. It's sort of burrowed down in the straw and looking quite comfortable and my chooks are glaring at it," he explained (chooks being one of those bits of Australian slang that has entered the English language courtesy of a steady diet of Aussie TV soaps). "One or two of the girls have gone over and pecked at the cat and it's hissed at them, so I'm not sure how tame it is."

The enterprising feline, obviously in need of a refuge from the March gales, had found a loose piece of wire mesh and set up home in the relative comfort of his chicken shed. It was black-and-white, possibly not tame. Very large.

"Now, I'm not an expert on cats, but it looks like it's nesting itself, this cat," Mr Wren finished, "Which is why it needs to be removed - I'm expecting the Orpingtons to hatch in the next few days. And with the cat sitting there, some of the girls aren't sitting on their eggs."

Scratch the above. Enterprising stray sets up home next door to food supply. Evidence that feline species possibly evolving away from hunting and into farming.

Forty-five minutes later, Joyce and I were staring through a window into the hen-house at a selection of chickens which were, in turn, glowering at a smug-looking black and white cat snuggled down in the straw on the opposite side of their hen-house. The chickens were making worried clucking and squawking noises and every now and again one would sidle over towards the unchickenlike newcomer and peck the ground as close to the cat as it dared before scurrying back to the others.

"It's displacement behaviour," said Mr Wren, "She's trying to warn off the predator and at the same time she's hoping that the other chickens will join her in attacking it. One chicken on her own isn't a match for a cat, but when the whole flock gang up they can be lethal - all those beaks and claws you see, plus they've got eggs to protect."

I could see where the cat had forced aside a lose bit of mesh near one of the wooden posts in the run section - it was hard to believe that the cat had squeezed through that gap. Mr Wren was anxious to secure the gap before any of his chickens did a runner. Being younger, and supposedly more nimble, than Joyce, I was automatically elected cat wrangler.

The cat did indeed look like it was nesting. It also seemed very placid so I decided to take the basket in and whisk pussy into the basket before the cat knew what was happening. Mr Wren let me into his chicken run with a warning about not upsetting his birds, please. I stood in the open space in the middle of the hen-house. To my left were several tiers of nesting boxes occupied by feathered residents. To my right were several tiers of nest boxes empty apart from one black and white cat and two black and white chickens who bravely refused to budge from their eggs.

"Hello puss," I said as I sidled towards the smug-looking cat and crouched down.

The cat purred gently.

"You're not wild are you?"

The cat blinked and yawned. I did the same back. Mr Wren sniggered through the window. Blinking and yawning is a gesture of non-threateningness in cat language. I reached out to the cat. She sniffed my fingers but didn't budge. The cat was tame. I stroked cat's head, feeling like a member of the bomb disposal squad faced with a particularly unstable world war bomb. Cat purred. Encouraged, I opened the wire carrier and reached both hands towards the still placid feline to pick her up. Big mistake.

The previously placid puss did a creditable imitation of an unstable bomb and exploded. I suddenly had an angry - and very large - black and white cat attached to the outside edge of one hand by its fangs. I actually heard its teeth click together through my hand before the cat let go and bolted through the pop-hole to the gap in the run outside. I wasn't aware of the this at the time, but Mr Wren told that was what had happened. I was aware of a bloody great hole in my left hand through which I could see the tendon of my little finger. I was also aware that I had screamed and stood bolt upright - but only because the air had erupted in a mass of feathers and panicky chickens. To this day I don't remember how I got out of the hen-house while cradling my left hand in my right hand. I do remember Mr Wren collecting my wire carrier and cradling a limp chicken (a rather pretty black, white and grey one) which had apparently died of shock..

"That was Maisie," Mr Wren murmured, "She was old and she wasn't laying, but we couldn't bring ourselves to do her for the pot. I used to give her a couple of eggs to incubate and she was quite content."

I also remember a moment of lucidity as the cat squeezed through the pop-hole. The cat wasn't so much large as very heavily pregnant.

"I should have worn my gauntlets," I apparently said (I don't actually remember this, but I wouldn't dare accuse Joyce of making it up).

Once Mrs Wren had poured a liberal amount of antiseptic over the wound and wrapped a dressing on my hand, Joyce drove me straight to the local A&E department and left me there.

"Sorry, but I've got to get back - you will be okay for a taxi won't you?"

To actually see a doctor in A&E you have to run the gauntlet of reception to register your presence and then the triage nurse who decides if you are urgent, able to wait or simply wasting their time.  The sympathetic triage nurse looked at my mangled hand and muttered that it must have been quite a large cat to do that sort of damage.

"Too right, it was," I agreed, "It was huge," I told her, with a lingering mental image of the heavily pregnant cat's girth trying to squeeze through a chicken-sized pop-hole, "Bloody great big thing."

Alongside "lacerated hand" written by the receptionist, the triage nurse noted "bitten by big cat" on my patient's details card. Luckily this was considered serious enough, or in retrospect intriguing enough, that I was called in to see a doctor in under 30 minutes and despatched for stitching up. Under local anaesthetic, the wound was flushed out, the tendon and torn muscle were poked back into their rightful places and the lacerated skin was stitched up. Sporting an over-large protective dressing I was pronounced fit enough to go home. Apart from the inconvenience of a strapped up hand and cursing myself for being incautious, I thought nothing more of it.

On the answerphone back home there was a message from Joyce. Mr Wren had called the shelter to say that the big black and white cat had taken up residence in an empty box in his kitchen and that his wife had been cuddling it.

I phoned Mr Wren who told me that the cat had made a nice cosy nest inside an empty crisp box - the sort with a big hole cut at the front that you see in pubs - and that his wife wanted to adopt the cat. There were dark murmurs about "grounds for divorce" from the chicken fancier, especially after his wife had roasted Maisie and hand-fed slivers of roasted Maisie to the cat as a pick-me-up.

"A pick-me-up?" I asked wearily, thinking that if anyone needed a pick-me-up it was the cat rescuer with the stitched and strapped hand.

"Well she produced five lovely kittens and the wife thought she needed something to keep her strength up."

No wonder the cat didn't want me to pick her up - she was just about to go into labour!

"I would rather someone picked the cat up though - I don't mind Denise adopting her, but you leave her here she'll want to keep all five kittens too!"

A couple of phone calls later and I despatched a very cautious Joyce (complete with gauntlets) to the scene of the morning's carnage. Joyce duly reported back that the cat, now named Maisie after the late hen of the same name, had been no trouble at all. If anything she'd been very relaxed and contented and the family had been installed in Kitten Pen 3.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. I got the bus to the shelter the next day and I'd swear that Maisie, my arch-nemesis, was grinning evilly at me through the kitten pen wire. Unfortunately, that was not to be the end of it at all thanks to the enterprising Steve from the Weekly News. To this day, I swear that Maisie personally picked Steve as the instrument of her revenge over her chicken-house eviction.

Thanks to the local gossip mill Steve had heard from a friend in Springfield Post Office that a woman had been bitten by a chicken-killing Big Cat in Springfield. Always hoping for a scoop, Steve had tracked the story back to Mr Wren who had given an interview about this large cat he had found in his hen-house. Through a little amateur sleuthing i.e. phoning the cat shelter and asking for my full name then referring to the phone directory, Steve had found my phone number.

"Mr Wren commended your bravery in tackling the cat without protective clothing - is that something you would normally do when approaching a big cat like this?" Steve asked.

"Tackling unfriendly cats is all in a day's work," I told him, trying to make light of the embarrassing incident, "Anyway it must have been quite familiar with people to go into the house like that. It turned out to be quite tame, but obviously upset and frightened when I tried to handle it."

"So it didn't actually attack you?"

"No, it just defended itself when I tried to pick it up."

"According to Mr and Mrs Wren, you were actually quite badly injured and had to be taken to hospital. Is that correct?"

"I needed some stitches," I agreed, "I actually felt its teeth meet through the flesh of my hand and snag the tendon," I explained, "Apparently if it had ripped the tendon out I could have lost the use of two fingers - that's why we should always wear gloves when tackling a cat of unknown temperament, especially a big one like this. "

"So what would you say it was exactly? Mr Wren said it was a black cat."

"Black with white markings actually ...."

"... So possibly a panther?" Steve interrupted excitedly.

"Err no," I said, seeing mental images of "Springfield Panther" headlines.

"A melanistic puma then?"

"It was a large and very pregnant domestic house cat. If it had been a panther do you think I'd have gone in the shed with it? I'd have called Colchester zoo!" I said in a raised voice, weighing up my famed inability to suffer fools gladly against HQ's directive to never lose one's temper with a journalist.

"I can't write that," muttered Steve and hung up.

And he didn't write that. In the Thursday edition, a little creative quoting had turned my embarrassing encounter with an upset domestic cat into a face-to-face encounter with the Springfield Panther, Slayer of Chickens and Nemesis of Cat Rescue Workers. Mr Wren was photographed holding one of his prize chickens which had survived its encounter with the beast. The paper had even found a photo of a black panther to accompany the article. Meanwhile Cats Protection workers apparently considered black panther call-outs to be merely "an occupational hazard". You can imagine the mickey-taking I got from my fellow shelter workers after that, not to mention the hoax calls from friends and, more worryingly, the very genuine calls from people wanting to adopt a black panther. I could've sworn that Maisie's grin was wider than ever.

"Hello, is that the cat shelter? Only I've got this panther I'd like you to collect." Clunk. Buzz. Thank you very much branch co-ordinator with a wicked sense of humour.

Eight weeks later, a spayed and stitched Maisie returned to live with the Wrens and I had finally lived down my "brush with the beast of Springfield" only to receive an email from a colleague at my paid job. He subscribed to some sort of email mailing list of ABC sighting (that's "Alien Big Cat" sightings) and my encounter had gone down in their files and statistics as a genuine BBC (British Big Cat) attack. I really hadn't the heart to email them back with my side of the story.