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28 August 2012, 06:22
Essex Police called off a widespread search for a lion reportedly on the loose and suggested the animal was more likely a large domestic cat or wildcat.
Officers spent almost 24 hours combing the countryside around Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, after a group of residents claimed on Sunday to have seen the king of the jungle near Earls Hall Drive in St Osyth.
But after search teams found no evidence of the big cat, the force decided to stop looking.
An Essex Police spokesman said: "We believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat.
"Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to; yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area.''
The culprit, according to the Daily Mirror, could have been Tom, a 12-year-old ginger tomcat that lives at an old people's home near the original sighting and likes to prowl the nearby fields.
The hunt got under way after holidaymakers contacted the police to say they had seen a big cat.
Denise Martin, 52, was the first to spot the suspected lion from the windows of her caravan on the site at Earls Hall Farm.
She was spending the Bank Holiday weekend at the site with her husband, Bob, 51, her brother, David Wright, 57, and his wife, Sue, 58.
Mrs Martin, a warehouse operative from Canvey Island, said she noticed a shape in a nearby field.
"We had a look and it looked like a lion,'' she said. "I said to my husband 'What do you make of that?' He said: 'That's a lion.' We walked out of the caravan nearer to the field to get a better look.''
She said the lion was tan coloured with a white chest.
Mrs Wright, a housewife and a mother of three children, from Dagenham, Essex, said: "The moment I saw it, straight away I said 'That looks like a lioness'.''
Another guest at the caravan site, Stephen Atkin, 52, a building maintenance inspector from Louth, Lincolnshire, said he was asked to confirm the suspected sighting to the police over the phone.
He told them it was "definitely a very large animal, and possibly a lion, definitely a large cat''.
He added: "We witnessed it, I would say, for about 20 to 30 minutes cleaning itself and rolling about in the field.''
He said the animal was the length of two sheep "put together''. "It was a big animal,'' he said.
Police said they had to take the reports seriously because of their duty to protect public safety.
The force originally advised residents to remain indoors as the search got under way after 7pm on Sunday.
Helicopters with heat-seeking equipment were scrambled to an area where the creature was apparently seen and experts from Colchester Zoo were called in to help.
They were shown images of the animal captured by a local and could not rule out that it was a lion.
As well as a heightened police presence and the helicopter search, zoo workers said to be armed with tranquilliser guns joined armed officers.
Essex Police said "public safety had remained at the forefront of the policing operation'' but officers can now advise residents to "once again return to normal life''.
The force also said that several "doctored photographs'' were in circulation through social networking sites.
It is not the first time that normal life has been disrupted because of reports of a lion on the loose.
Last year, West Yorkshire Police scrambled a helicopter and passengers were prevented from leaving a train after a motorist reported seeing a lion as she drove through Shepley, near Huddersfield.
A hunt found nothing.