Wild animals and Cambridgeshire aren’t usually words you put together in the same sentence. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a magpie is about as exotic as things get over here.
But that’s far from the case, we’re no strangers to wild and dangerous animals here in Cambs – you’ve heard about the fen tiger, right? And that’s just the cherry on top, over the years we’ve brought you stories of runaway emus, wallabies and snakes on the loose.
There was even that time a young boy came face to face with a cheetah in his back garden. So we’ve decided to take a look back at some of the bessssst stories of escaped animals in Cambs.
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1. The young boy who came face-to-face with a cheetah
In 2008, an investigation was launched after a nine-year-old boy came face-to-face with an escaped cheetah walking up his drive. The animal escaped from nearby Hamerton Zoo through an electric fence and appeared through bushes as young Toby Taylor played on his bicycle at Rookery Farm, near Sawtry.
Toby spotted the big cat just 15 feet away, dropped his bike and fled to the safety of his house just seconds before the big cat – the fastest animal on earth capable of hitting speeds of 70mph – pounced on the cycle tearing the seat and tires to shreds.
Toby and his mother Jules, 41, sheltered inside for 20 minutes until keepers from the zoo arrived to capture the animal, known as Akea. Its handlers arrived on the scene 20 minutes later but took a further 20 minutes to restrain the animal, which even tried to bite its owners.
It was finally harnessed and locked in the family’s horse stables until a crate arrived to transport it back to its cage. Zoo officials said at the time the animal was as tame as a “pet dog” – and was not a threat to human life. But Toby, from Hamerton, said: “I panicked. It looked massive and really scary. I thought it would attack me. I ran as fast as I could.”
Jules said: “I started to have a go at Toby for slamming the door when he ran up to me shouting ‘mummy, there’s a cheetah in the garden’. I thought he was pulling my leg but he was white, shaking and shrill. We peered out of the kitchen window and there it was, sitting bang in the middle of our lawn, looking towards the house. Then it got hold of Toby’s bike and started ripping it to bits. I was in a blind panic and didn’t know what to do so I phoned 999.”
2. When a hungry python went on the run
In June 2009, a hungry five-foot-long Royal Python went roving in Cambridge. Police and animal welfare officers were tasked to keep an eye out for the snake, called Monty, who escaped his coop in Cowley Road.
As slippery customer Monty had just shed his skin, owner Martin Tuck said he could have been on the hunt for food. Martin, who worked at Christ’s College, said: “He is completely harmless and is actually quite friendly.
“He will be seeking warmth so he might be heading for someone’s car, office or house. He’s just shed his skin, which means he’s hungry, but he doesn’t pose a threat to anyone. If someone sees him, they should call the police or the RSPCA who knows he’s gone missing.
“I’ve had him for 13 years and he’s never escaped like this. I’m really worried that if he gets too cold, he will curl up, go to sleep and die.” It’s not known what happened to Monty, if you know get in touch.
3. That other time a python escaped and caused chaos in Cambridge
Back in 2019, the world went wild for an escaped snake called Turin. The 9ft snake aptly nicknamed the Cambridge python slithered out of the window of its Lovell Road home.
Pandemonium ensued, as Cambridge speculated where this giant animal was and when it had last eaten. First it was pointed out that a woman had been cut out of a wild reticulated python in Indonesia that had swallowed her whole, with Sky News saying it could eat a human. However, police soon put this to rights saying that in fact the snake was only a risk to “small animals” sparking a unanimous decision to ‘not put the cat out’ across the city.
After a week on the loose the enormous snake was finally spotted in a neighbour’s garden. There was a huge rescue party, to bring the reticulated python home, With his owner known as Mr I saying at the time: “As far as he was concerned he was just having a fun roam around. He didn’t even care so I just grabbed him.”
4. The polecat who went for a stroll down a high street
In March 2010 a polecat was spotted in St Neots doing a spot of shopping. Stunned CCTV operators at Huntingdonshire District Council recorded the animal taking advantage of the quiet High Street as it wandered along looking in to the shop windows.
After several minutes of its expedition, the polecat left the area covered by the CCTV cameras and headed back towards the park.
A spokesman for the council’s countryside services said: “It was an unusual sighting and was fascinating to see. The polecat could be somebody’s pet which had escaped as their natural habitat is usually more rural areas.” Domesticated polecats are commonly known as ferrets and are kept as pets or used for hunting.
5. Snuffles the runaway hedgehog
In 2010, a rare blond hedgehog escaped – just one week after bosses at Shepreth Wildlife Park consulted an ethics committee over whether to keep the bristly character. Snuffles was brought in by an animal lover who found him stumbling in an alley dangerously underweight and at danger of being picked off by countryside predators.
Bosses at the Cambridgeshire park sought the advice of several experts who eventually decided to keep the unusual animal, who is not an albino but a rare blond, in a natural enclosure because his chance of survival in the wild was small. But when the News went to meet the park’s newest resident, the cunning creature had already done a bunk.
Animal manager Rebecca Willers said the animal was definitely still within the attraction’s grounds and keepers were working to find him. Rebecca said: “I never believe a native species should be kept in captivity, if it can be released it should be, but obviously in the circumstances we have to think of all the possible outcomes.
“Their bright illuminating coloring makes them stick out like a sore thumb in the UK countryside and, they are easily spotted by badgers and foxes who would go for them over other hedgehogs. We went to our ethics committee, made up of keepers and vets and animal experts, as we don’t take it upon ourselves to always know what is right.
“I wanted him to be released across the entire site but the head keeper, Katherine Lyon, wanted him for the education department as he would still be at risk of attack. We compromised and put him into a naturalistic enclosure that is safe, which is the most important thing.”
The animals are extremely rare in the UK except on the Channel Island of Alderney since a pair were released there sometime during the 1960s.
6. The Dutch ferret that tried to board a flight
A ferret tried to board a plane back to his native Holland back in 2012. The ferret was spotted attempting to board a military aircraft from Cambridge to Holland in October.
But the 18-month-old wannabe stowaway was stopped in his tracks by workers at Cambridge Airport and handed in to an animal charity. Wood Green animal shelter then launched an international search for the runaway pet’s owners.
His owner, who lives in Cherry Hinton, came forward to be reunited with Freddie – who was named Vincent by the Airport workers. Diana Bijanskiene, 22, who lives near the Airport, then decided to get another ferret to keep Freddie company in a bid to stop him running off again.
Diana, who brought Freddie over to the UK with her on a ferry, said: “When we saw Freddie in the pet shop, we fell in love with him. I was crying for days after he escaped. “I thought I would never see him again. We put leaflets up on trees in the neighborhood but heard nothing for days.
“We are so happy to have him back home. We might get him a lady friend to keep him company and out of mischief.” Diana received Freddie as a wedding gift from a pet shop in her home town of Panevezys.
7. The rogue swan and the loose dog
Animal antics kept police busy in Cambridge in August 2016, after police officers were called to reports of a rogue swan and an escaped dog. Just after 8am police were alerted to reports of a ‘loose dog’ on Fulbourn Road, Cambridge.
The dog was seen running into traffic by a concerned member of the public. When police arrived, officers conducted a search of the area but there was no trace of the dog.
Just a few hours later, police were then called to reports of a ‘rogue swan’ in Chesterton Road, Cambridge near to the roundabout on Elizabeth Way. Officers arrived at the scene armed with blankets to help capture the swan, but discovered the swan had fled before they reached the scene.
8. Rheas on the run
Rhea birds have gone on the run in Cambridgeshire multiple times over the years. The last major sighting of the big bird, similar to an ostrich, was in September 2017, when one was seen around 4pm in Sedge Fen near Lakenheath.
Chris Cross, 34, from Littleport, was driving with her husband Stefan before spotting the creature and believing it to be an ostrich. “It’s not something you see in a field every day,” said Chris.
“My husband said that he saw an ostrich in the field. His mum told me that he’s been known to mix an ostrich and a chicken muddled when he was a child, so I thought he was daft and said it was a swan. He was so adamant that we turned around and saw it.
“It put its head in the dirt and then walked away. It was quite an unusual afternoon.” The saga of south Cambridgeshire’s roaming rhea, Eric, came to a happy ending in January 2017.
Local police dubbed him ‘Chris Rhea’, after they spotted him on Christmas Day in Thriplow. But after doing the rounds for weeks, with further sightings in Fowlmere and Foxton, the avian escapologist was recaptured, and returned to his owners.