Ever had a yearning for an up close and personal encounter with an alligator, a wallaby, a giant python, a fully-grown lynx, or a baboon? If the answer is "yes" - and if you're really lucky - you can do exactly that without even leaving the UK. And, no, we're not talking about a day-trip to the local zoo. Forget foxes, badgers and hedgehogs, the UK countryside is increasingly becoming home to some seriously exotic and out of place animals.
It's not every day you get to see a wallaby bouncing merrily down your local high street. Or is it? For years, there have been reports of wallabies - even whole colonies of them - inhabiting the wilder parts of the UK. Incredibly, some of these stories can be verified. Back in the 1930s, dozens escaped from a private zoo in Leek, Staffordshire and had the good taste to make a home for themselves in the picturesque Peak District. And in April 2012, one was caught on film hanging out in a field in Pluckley, Kent. Crikey, cobber!
Imagine the scene: you're sitting around, doing a spot of fishing on your favourite canal and out of the corner of your eye you see something swimming along at a leisurely pace. But this is no trout, perch or pike. This is a 15-foot-long python. You have just gone from being the hunter to the hunted. Think it couldn't happen? Think again! Back in 2003, the body of just such a huge snake was hauled out of a stretch of canal in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Remember that the next time you decide to feed the ducks.
There's barely a day goes by anymore without someone claiming to have seen a "black panther" roaming around the UK. Whether it's the "Beast of Bodmin" or the "Beast of Exmoor," they're here, there and everywhere. Or, so we are told. While many reports can be relegated to the world of mistaken identity (overfed tabbies and the like), that's not always the case. In 2001, nothing less than a lynx was rounded up by London Zoo staff from - wait for it - a back-garden in Cricklewood! Talk about a cat among the pigeons!
During the summer of 2003, wild rumours surfaced out of the Staffordshire town of Cannock that a fully-grown, man-eating alligator was on the loose. Its lair was the Roman View Pond. Although the RSPCA, the UK media, and even the police descended on the scene with lightning speed, nothing was ever found. But, that's not to say there was nothing to the monster mania. From studying witness reports, wildlife experts concluded the "alligator" was actually a snapping-turtle, probably released into the pond by its owner after it got too big to handle. Lake Placid? Sadly not.
What do you do when someone tells you they have seen a baboon roaming around the fringes of Prestwick Airport, Scotland? Well, if you're the local police, you investigate it! And that's exactly what happened when just such a creature was allegedly spotted near the airport in January 1999. Despite an intensive search, the baboon was never caught, which is a shame. After all, it would have been a memorable sight indeed to see a bunch of struggling coppers trying to handcuff the beast amid the screaming words of: "You're nicked, my son!"
Richmond Park, London hardly seems the typical place for an Indian white-backed vulture to chill out. But, sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction. Back in 2006, just such an immense bird briefly called the park its home. Evidently, the other resident birds didn't take too kindly to its pecking presence. Amazed onlookers saw whole squadrons of bullying magpies and crows dive-bomb the vulture shortly after its arrival. As for its origin, some said it was Bones, a young male vulture that had escaped from Blackbrook Zoological Park, Staffordshire three months earlier. Bones should have stayed home.
According to the experts (but, come on, what do they know?) the last wild wolf in the UK was killed centuries ago. That being the case, how can wolves be running around Scotland, blissfully unaware of the fact that, apparently, they don't exist? Yes, it's a puzzle! And it's one that reached boiling point when, in August 2009, what looked just like a wolf was seen in Polkemmet Country Park, Lothians. The official explanation? Nothing stranger than someone's escaped pet husky. To be sure, a story of shaggy dog proportions!
Yes, they look cute and cuddly, but, let's face it, they're hardly native to the UK and have no business being here. In fact, they're far more at home in the United States. What are they? Prairie-dogs! For years, tales have quietly circulated in UK zoological circles that a colony of such animals has, for decades, been living contentedly on certain stretches of Cornwall moorland. Zoo officials and the RSPCA openly scoffed at such possibilities. Or, they did until 2009, when one little fellow was conclusively captured on film and confirmed by staff from Newquay Zoo. Wild!
Spoiler alert: if you have an aversion to spiders, read no further! Most of us have seen a few oversized Daddy Long-legs in our time. But, that's not what we're talking about here. Worse things than that are prowling around the UK. Only two years ago, a couple of decent-sized tarantulas were found in gardens in Bolton. Precisely what provoked the arachnid attraction to Bolton is as much a mystery as their presence in the UK in the first place. But they provoked a lot of fun for the local media, so it wasn't all bad news for Bolton.
Now for a story with a real sting in its tail. In August 2011, a shop-worker at a Farmfoods store in Stonehaven got a nasty surprise while unpacking a box of Colombian bananas. It was nothing less than a painful injection of venom from a creature that is as recognisable as it is feared: a scorpion. Evidently, the little chap had hot-footed it from Colombia, and was not in a good mood. Fortunately, the sting was not lethal, the worker quickly recovered, and the scorpion found a new home at the Scottish SPCA. A happy ending for all!