Catch them if you can? Meet the exotic pet detectives
Skunks, iguanas, terrapins, big cats… Britain has more invasive and exotic animals than you imagine. Meet the search and rescue enthusiasts dedicated to capturing them and keeping them safe
Sometime in 2016, Chris Mullins received a message about a missing skunk. Mullins, 70, who lives in Leicestershire, had founded a Facebook group, Beastwatch UK, in 2001 as a place to document exotic animal sightings in the British countryside, so it was natural for news of this sort to trickle his way. In that time there had been a piranha in the Thames and a chinchilla in a post box, so a skunk on the loose in a local village seemed a relatively manageable misadventure. He loaded up some traps and headed to Barrow upon Soar to see if he could help locate the wayward creature.
Mullins, who has a white beard, smiling eyes and maintains a steady, gentle rhythm when he speaks, had always nurtured a passion for wildlife – chasing it down, catching it. The interest took hold amid a challenging childhood. Aged five, Mullins was victim of a hit and run that left him with amnesia and he spent two years in hospital before his parents sent him to a special school to catch up with his education.
It was there his interest in animals was sparked (he recalls sprinting after a hare in a field – “Sadly it was that little bit faster than I was” – and catching a bat that flew into the boy’s dormitory), so when a move to secondary school saw him the victim of bullying, the natural world became a sanctuary. By the late 1970s, as the beast of Exmoor, a vicious big cat said to roam the West Country, gained notoriety, he became enamoured with the phenomenon of British big cats. Curious about what other exotic animals could be out there, he found that wallabies, raccoons, pythons and many other species were hiding in Britain’s parishes, roaming the estates, hidden away in garden sheds. He started the Beastwatch group out of “pure curiosity”. Think of it as a data project: “What’s out there? Let’s find out.”
But it was only in 2016 when Mullins set out to search for that missing skunk that the group’s potential became clear to him. When he arrived in Barrow upon Soar he met the distraught owner – a keen exotics keeper – and realised that many of these incongruous creatures he’d been fascinated by were people’s pets that had escaped or been freed. “I realised that it was time to stop treating these animals as statistics,” he says. “To roll my sleeves up and get stuck in… To try to help find them.”
Mullins resolved that Beastwatch needed to refocus its purpose: the seed for the country’s first dedicated search and rescue operation for exotic animals was sown.
As more attention is given to the issue of non-native invasive species in the UK, exotic pets have come under further scrutiny. Invasive species, which can disturb the equilibrium of a local ecosystem via predation, competition, or spreading disease, have been described as one of the top threats to biodiversity worldwide. It costs the UK economy up to £1.8bn a year, mainly through its impact on agricultural land or property damage. Many of the most problematic species – such as Japanese knotweed or the signal crayfish – were brought over as a result of trade and agriculture, but escaped pets represent another channel of entry.
Exotic pets have been living in Britain since the Norman times. William the Conqueror kept a menagerie at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, which contained lions, camels and lynxes. The Tower of London counted leopards, bears and an African elephant among its residents. Tales of escapes go back centuries. A monkey that lived at the Tower broke free in 1754, climbed the walls and showered staff with roof tiles before it eventually returned to its cage of its own volition; a Bengal tiger went on an all-night rampage down London’s Piccadilly half a century later.
The exotic pet trade as we know it took off in the second half of the 20th century. Between 1952 and 1965 the number of “foreign” animals that passed through Heathrow airport each month increased from 80 to 8,000, according to a 1965 feature in this very magazine that asked: “Is the pet business getting out of hand?” It’s grown ever since. The last two decades have seen a 60% increase in the number of exotic pets in the UK, according to a survey by the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife charity. It includes an estimated 3m reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and birds. Last year there were 3,651 dangerous wild animals kept under licence.
And no, they are not all safely at home with their owners. If anyone knows this, it’s Mullins. In 2006, Beastwatch conducted its first survey of exotic animal sightings. It counted 5,391 big cats, 51 wallabies, 43 snakes, 10 crocodiles, seven wolves and three pandas, among others, between 2000 and 2006. The big cat sightings are unverified – so perhaps speak to imaginations running wild, not just pets – but it has been estimated that about 500 big cats are loose in the UK. And yes, a red panda was found in the Birmingham suburbs in 2005 after escaping a nature park. “It is clear the UK contains far more exotic wild animals than the British public could ever imagine,” he told reporters at the time.
Many historic escapees have already made themselves at home in the UK. Ring-necked parakeets, or the “grey-squirrel of the sky”, were kept as pets in the Victorian times. A colony first established itself in Kent in the late 1960s and there could now be up to 30,000 breeding pairs. Red-eared terrapins became hip in the 1980s amid Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-mania and can now be found nationwide. A small population of wallabies has lived in Staffordshire since the Second World War, when five of the marsupials escaped a zoo at Roaches Hall. A number of Himalayan porcupines established themselves in Devon during the 1970s after escaping a wildlife park. In 2009, a colony of skunks was found in the Forest of Dean.
Raccoons, raccoon dogs and Siberian chipmunks are three mammals with the biggest potential to become established in the UK to the detriment of local wildlife according to a horizon-scanning report funded by Defra. Many raccoon dogs, or tanuki, were kept as pets in the UK until 2019 when the animal was added to the invasive species list. It is known as the “escapologist of the mammal world”. When Mullins was investigating that missing skunk, he picked up the Barrow upon Soar newsletter to discover the village also had a renegade raccoon dog; a photo had been printed of the animal rummaging in someone’s kitchen.
The RSPCA does not have the resources to go looking for missing pets – however exotic – though will attend to them when found. The organisation has fielded an increasing number of calls regarding exotic animals over the past decade, many of which have been abandoned. In September it published a report with Born Free calling for tighter restrictions. Animals on the non-native invasive species list cannot be kept as a pet (unless you owned one before the species was listed), and dangerous animals require a licence from the council. Otherwise you can keep almost any animal as a pet in the UK. The Kept Animals Welfare Bill, which is currently moving through parliament, is set to ban the keeping of primates as pets and require anyone in possession of one to apply for a licence. Until then, even monkeys are fair game.
While animal welfare charities, environmental groups, exotic keepers and the government grapple with the best way to manage the UK’s rapidly diversifying population of animals, the frequency with which they are popping up in unlikely circumstances is rising. Whether it’s a raccoon dog dumped by its owner, a much-loved python gone awry, or a suspected big cat on the Derbyshire hills, the fact is, the animals are out there. Who’s going to get them back?
Mullins never did manage to catch the Barrow upon Soar skunk – the animal was later found by the owner trapped in a drain – but he returned home inspired. He put out a message to the Beastwatch Facebook community and a committee was formed to establish how to organise an effective search and rescue operation. His first successful recapture came a year later, when a creature-encounter company put out an appeal about another skunk, named Jasper, on the loose in Narborough, Leicestershire. Mullins showed up with a small team armed with humane traps and walkie talkies. It was caught within the hour. “That was remarkable,” says Mullins, who spotted it in a garden, took pursuit and helped corner it in an outhouse. “Sometimes we could be out for hours, days, weeks and nothing comes of it.”
Mullins built a database of volunteers, but at first Beastwatch operated in a fairly loose fashion. Like Mullins, many Beastwatch members were interested in cryptozoology – animals whose existence is disputed, or that have roots in myth, legend or folklore. For many in the group these out-of-place animals were a similar phenomena. Cryptozoology was recreational, fun, nothing much depended on their success or failure in finding something.
But one member who was eager to change this was Mike Potts, 54, the committee secretary. Potts shared an interest in cryptozoology, but what really intrigued him were the mysteries that surround real animals. The Beastwatch project tapped into his desire to make sense of the subversive side of nature and the legends that out-of-place animals can generate. “If they’re not escaped or released pets, they’re either unusual migratory visitors, or stowaways,” says Potts. Mullins and Potts hit it off. “He was full of enthusiasm,” says Mullins. “This was what we needed”.
Potts knew that work needed to be done for Beastwatch to be credible. There are skills required to investigate a mystery beast or handle an exotic pet. They don’t always match. Potts became more selective with recruitment. “There’s no point having hundreds of volunteers if they won’t move from behind the keyboard.” Beastwatch began making its transition into a serious, albeit fringe, wildlife rescue group.
In 2019, Potts took over as CEO. That summer it boasted another success when it recaptured two raccoon dogs reported by the BBC to have been “terrorising” residents around Clarborough, Nottinghamshire, “as if they were monsters,” says Potts. The Beastwatch team showed up to coordinate a search operation that boasted drones, thermal imaging technology and cameras as well as a team scouting the surrounding countryside. After a 96-hour search the raccoon dogs were recaptured.
Climate change is increasing the threat of invasive species, but most escaped exotics are unlikely to survive long in the wilds of Britain, let alone become established. That’s the key reason Beastwatch believes it’s urgent to swiftly retrieve them. It’s a welfare issue. And a service for keepers that have been given the slip. Potts does not dispute the need for regulation, and that it should not be so easy to buy these creatures.
On a cold, grey November day, I pay Potts a visit. He lives just outside Preston, in a semi-detached house. He shares it with his partner and fellow reptile aficionado Kate Ashley, 36, two of her children, and more than 30 animals. In the driveway is a car with a green sticker on the windscreen: “Emergency Animal Responder on Call”. There’s a stuffed leopard toy on the dashboard and a pile of cages on the back seat. Potts, who has a grey beard and thick black eyebrows, answers the door. We take a seat in the front room surrounded by reptile tanks. There’s a gecko, a salamander, leeches. Another is filled with cockroaches. He reaches into the tank and pulls out two of the insects. “These would make appropriate pets for children,” he says fondly as they crawl around his hands. They almost seem cuddly. He unlatches a door in the base of a black cabinet and a brown and white skunk named Bisto scuttles out and hides behind the sofa. “Cup of tea?” asks Potts. “Yes, please,” I reply.
Many of the animals in his home are rescues that he has rehoused. Through the kitchen is a conservatory where a Savannah cat patrols more tanks containing a python and a boa. Beyond that is a concrete yard where Potts keeps two raccoon dogs.
Potts wants Beastwatch to be taken seriously by the authorities. Sure, many of the early members were there for the big-cat chatter, but since then it has evolved into a network of experienced exotic keepers. Today it has 500 volunteers in local teams that cover every county in England, with four teams in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland. The group has 3,300 members and a steady stream of requests for help. Recent posts include a (now found) royal python in Rainham and a missing African grey parrot in Banks. They encounter about 100 cases a month, but Potts reckons it’s pushing 1,500 cases a year now. As well as proactively searching for missing animals, Beastwatch is connected to people with the facilities to home them. There’s a gap within the existing animal rescue infrastructure, Potts believes, and they can plug it.
The doorbell rings. It’s Tracie Williams, executive director of operations for Beastwatch. Williams is a former RSPCA inspector who joined Beastwatch about four years ago. She is helping Potts build collaborative relationships with other wildlife groups and tout their unique skill set to the emergency services. “They effectively treat every single animal that isn’t a cat or dog as venomous,” says Williams. “So they’re looking for somebody to tell them: ‘Is this snake going to kill me?’”
Another reason to have a good relationship with the police is that Beastwatch activity has a tendency to look suspicious. In October, Potts and Williams hot-footed it to Blackpool to join the hunt for a 4ft iguana. “It’s night-time and we’re going around back alleys with high-powered torches and peering over people’s fences,” says Williams, who phoned the local force to let them know. “An hour later they’re calling us back asking: ‘Have you found it? Is it OK? Will it live!?’” It was vindicating: “They showed real interest,” she says. As for the iguana? Conveniently, it was bright orange. The lizard was soon spotted in the low branches of a tree and caught with the help of a snake hook. Potts shared a celebratory post on the Beastwatch Facebook page. “You can keep your hedgehogs and pigeons folks – this is what we live for!” He whooped.
While Potts charges onwards – he wants Beastwatch to be a household name – Mullins is happy to take a step back from the day-to-day operation. He never imagined Beastwatch would take the course it did, though his love for the chase still pulses through it. “I was gobsmacked at how quickly it evolved,” he says. “When people started joining it was wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Today, Mullins still keeps tabs on notable sightings and goes on excursions from time to time. “I’ve been given some leads, which would be interesting to chase up,” he says. “I need to put it out there in the local press again – see if I can get some more information.” He’s fixing up a motorhome so he can tour the country. Spread the Beastwatch gospel. In the meantime the creatures on his doorstep keep him occupied. There are badgers that come up to his house every night. He feeds them, talks to them. “They can be very entertaining animals,” he says. “Squirrels, too. I do love them. They’re an invasive species – so we’re not supposed to – but they’re cute little buggers.” Whether it should be here or not, Mullins is satisfied with whatever is out there. He doesn’t go in for pets. “I have four chickens,” he says.