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On the Origins of the 'Dangerous Wild Animals Act' of 1976 – PART II (Those Who Forget History are Destined to Relive it)

Back in August of this year I felt I had covered new ground by piecing together much of the story relating to the origins of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, but now that additional detail about this story has found its way to my inbox, I feel compelled to provide an update and addendum to my earlier article. This article contains detailed accounts of several traumatic events, as well as images and reference material which some people may find distressing.

By Tim WhittardPublished 2 years ago 12 min read
An extract from the 14th December 1971 issue of 'The Daily Mirror'.

To re-cap, this piece of legislation is of particular interest to the folk who research and study the subject of big cats in Britain; for it is considered by many to be the very bedrock of the phenomenon - a notion I personally dispute, yet have already partially explored and written about other hypotheses (Whittard, 2020b), but that said, I cannot deny its significance.

In order to understand this better, earlier this year I set about researching the reasons why the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) was brought into law, and I was able to piece together an account of a harrowing attack on an 8 year old boy called ‘James Tyler’ on Oldfields Road in Sutton, Surrey. This incident took place in October of 1970, and later that same week, it was directly cited in a debate in the ‘House of Lords’ as the reason as to why the then government felt it should intervene in the extremely popular, yet unregulated exotic pet trade in the United Kingdom of the time – in the interest of safety.

The source I referenced at the time of my first article stated the involved puma was a large female called ‘Tara’ (Brown, 2020; Whittard, 2020a). However, I now stand corrected and have found other reference material which originates more reliably from sources published a lot nearer to the time of the incident. James was indeed attacked by a large puma, but it was a male named ‘Dax’ (Glenton, 1971).

Maurice with 'Dax' the male puma; photographed at a local school.

In the lead up to the terrifying incident, James (known as 'Jimmy'), was being dropped off by his father (a serving police officer) with his sister in the nearby industrial estate. Jimmy’s father then left him and his sister to walk the short distance to meet their mother nearby, who was scheduled to finish work. Jimmy was unaware of the large male puma named ‘Dax’, hiding under a nearby van (to which it was secured by a long chain, but with more than enough slack for it to be able to ambush, pounce on and maul an unsuspecting passerby); had he known of the puma’s presence it is likely that Jimmy would have suppressed his instinct to run to his mother as he saw her exiting her workplace…

Jimmy Tyler, before the attack.

Alas, Jimmy did not know of the mountain lion that was waiting for him to approach, and nor was he able to defend himself from what happened next. Fortunately, he was rescued by a brave, fast-acting and quick-thinking man, who previously was stated to be ‘unnamed’; however, I am now able to name the man as George McKnight (Sussex History Forum, 2014). He was working nearby, witnessed the attack unfold, and without any hesitation stepped forward to the defence of Jimmy; using an iron bar to beat Dax into retreat, he was able to wrestle Jimmy free from the claws of the mountain lion, “before throwing James clear” out of the reach of the cat and thus ending the attack. Without the bravery and quick reactions of George McKnight, it seems incredibly likely that Jimmy would have needed a lot more emergency care than the short spell in hospital and the 38 sutures to his face, neck and throat that he did.

Jimmy Tyler indeed owes his life to George McKnight, as is made absolutely clear by this following computer-rendered sketch constructed from a long-lost photograph taken in the hospital at the time, which shows the scale and severity of the injuries.

A computer-rendered sketch of Jimmy recovering in hospital after the attack (based on an original photograph taken at the time).

The owner of the puma (or mountain lion) involved here is known by the name of ‘Maurice Wheeler’, (his full name is ‘William Henry Maurice Wheeler’); interestingly this was not the first incident where a child was attacked and injured by one of his animals. Incredibly, just two months earlier, in August 1970, a 9 year old boy named ‘Peter Cliff’ was also attacked by another of Maurice Wheeler’s ‘pet’ pumas; in this incident, Peter was passing the animal "when it jumped at him, gripped his shoulder and knocked him to the ground" near to a fishing lake in Dorking, Surrey (Glenton, 1971).

Maurice's pumas (and the van, from under which Dax ambushed Jimmy).

What is even more unfathomable is that neither of these two incidents were the first, and that in fact, both were preceded by another traumatising event which occurred only 3 months before the attack on Peter Cliff, and 5 months before the attack on Jimmy Tyler. Unbelievably, on Friday 29th May 1970, the first recorded serious untoward incident occurred, when another 9 year old, this time a girl named ‘Lorraine Wheeler’, (Maurice’s own niece) was bitten by one of his apes whilst she played in her own back garden!

Now most of us can be forgiven for thinking that 2020 has been a year of unrivalled chaos, but for the three children, the two pumas and the one ape (or two apes if we include Mr. Wheeler) that were involved in the events I have just described, the year 1970 totally trumps anything 2020 has served up for the majority of us.

In my previous article I mentioned that I had been able to make contact with Maurice Wheeler, but that any detailed discussions were halted as soon as I mentioned my interest in the history of Britain’s big cats. Indeed from perusing the social media accounts attached to this evidently eccentric individual, it does not take long before the image of a wannabe hybrid between ‘Peter Stringfellow’ and ‘Lenny McLean’ emerges, with numerous photos depicting a life immersed in extravagance, wild nightclub culture, and unsavoury gang-minded machismo; a view reinforced all the more by descriptions of his “dominant personality” and reports from investigations at the time of the attack on Jimmy Tyler, that “several people on the estate had witnessed various unreported incidents” associated with Maurice’s mismanaged menagerie of man-eaters, but also that there was a well-established “reluctance on the part of witnesses to these events to commit their observations to writing” due to “fear of some form of retaliation” (Sussex History Forum, 2014). With this in mind, I personally suspect that action would have been a lot slower, if at all forthcoming, were it not for the fact that Jimmy’s father was a respected and serving police officer at the time.

It is often said by the learned and wise that 'those who forget history are destined to relive it' (Santayana, 1906), and clearly this sentiment rings true; as despite the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) being decreed into law nearly half a century ago, problems persist with horrifying incidents of similar magnitude recurring. For example, in 2003, nearly three decades after the law was passed, an investigative journalism exposé revealed that the closed Basildon Zoo had been selling lion cubs and leopard cubs illegally for as little as £700 through a ‘black market’ pet shop in Enfield, London which was ran by ‘Steve Haswell’ in conjunction with the zoo's then owner, ‘Yolanda Surcouf’ (BBC News, 2003; BBC Press Office, 2003). As recently as August of this year, a video surfaced which showed a 16 year old girl being attacked by a captive puma, kept under license by ‘Reece Oliver’ at his farm in Strelley, Nottinghamshire (Gray, 2020); the girl (whose identity has been protected) was employed as a stable-hand, with no experience or training in caring for large carnivores, and yet on the day of the incident, she was instructed to work alone and unsupervised with the dangerous big cats, including the African lions, as well as the pumas - with terrifying results.

The following article from Pattinson (2020) contains a video which shows, some efforts to ensure security at the site were clearly made (indicated by the presence of the CCTV camera itself), and yet this alone was clearly not sufficient, as the footage demonstrates how easily the puma was able to over-power its human keeper and escape the enclosure; which could have had even more disastrous consequences should the animal have made it beyond the perimeter fence...

It must be stated and emphasised that in all of the incidents outlined above, the animals involved were captive ones. This is of vital importance to remember, as whilst wild big cats do pose a threat to human life, it is markedly and drastically less significant than any risk posed by a similar captive animal; where the creature’s entire existence is constrained to range-limiting enclosures and forced dependency upon human caregivers, who themselves, by the very nature of the responsibilities associated with owning a “Category 1” dangerous animal (such as a big cat) as defined by DEFRA (2012), are required to come into close contact with the animal on routine occasions, for provision of the numerous essential care and maintenance duties; with every moment of contact between human and any such captive big cat, being ripe with potential for catastrophé, given the slightest momentary lapse in concentration or common sense. Wild big cats would not naturally choose to socialise with humans and would exhibit an entirely different behavioural profile, which means that they would seldom, if ever, approach people and would prefer to avoid contact with humans in almost all circumstances.

Interestingly, it does seem that despite the vast majority of licence holders for the ownership of dangerous animals in the United Kingdom being extremely responsible individuals, there does seem to be an ongoing degree of confusion surrounding the legislation, which persists.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Zoo Licensing Act (1981) does not apply to private animal owners, and yet upon closer inspection it is somewhat more ambiguous, stating that “the Secretary of State may from time to time specify standards of modern zoo practice” which must be adhered to; and upon reading the current revision of these standards, as outlined by DEFRA (2012), I was amazed to learn that the definition of a “zoo” can include private collections, “to which members of the public have access, with or without charge for admission, on seven days or more in any period of 12 consecutive months”. By this definition, it is possible that any owner of dangerous animals who keeps them at their residency could find their ‘private collection’ classified as a ‘zoo’, should they have visitors to their home on more than 7 occasions in one year. This may seem pedantic, but it is in fact a serious distinction to make, because in inadvertently crossing into the classification of a ‘zoo’, the licensed animal owner suddenly becomes liable and responsible for a whole plethora of other contingency plans and safety precautions which are otherwise not mandated by law, which can include; comprehensive plans for a “response to an escape in all situations”, such as plans for “recapturing the animal”, “the provision of firearms and darting equipment to tranquillise or kill escaped animals “, which in turn, requires “regular training with firearms and darting equipment”, as well as an appropriately protected vehicle to aid the “recapture party”, and the preparedness to euthanise any escaped animal.

It stands to reason then, that some private big cat owners will fall into a grey legal area, where neither the owners, nor the authorities are entirely clear of their responsibilities, requirements, and of the laws, standards and guidelines which may apply.

To summarise, here we have seen a small selection of the many incidents which highlight the failings of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) in firstly, restricting and controlling the sale of big cats (and other exotic animals) without a license, and secondly, in ensuring that avoidable attacks on humans from captive dangerous wild animals do not occur. We have also seen how easily the distinction between ‘zoo’ and ‘private collection’ can be blurred within the current legal frameworks. This is before even beginning to try to tackle the known (and rumoured) deliberate releases of big cats into the British countryside, and the domino-effect of issues that could arise from having a range of apex predators secretly living and breeding alongside humans on this little island.

Significantly, Shepherd et al (2014) state that whilst “large felid carnivore attacks cause exponentially fewer injuries than human conflicts, falls, or other environmental exposures, they have become a not infrequent and potentially preventable cause of significant human morbidity and mortality in the last several decades”, before adding that communities of people “who live, work, and pursue travel and recreation at the urban-wildlands interface”, as well as individuals “who may be exposed to the increasing numbers” of “felid carnivores” in both “captive” and “wild” settings, should be educated carefully with regard to the “risks inherent to these activities” .

So clearly, this is not going to be the end of the story; there will no doubt be further avoidable and untoward injuries resulting from human-animal conflict in both captive and non-captive settings, and there remains much work to be done if we are to even to begin to attempt to address the failings and pitfalls of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976), as well as the unintended consequences of enacting this law.

Quite how to achieve this, whilst mitigating any risks to both the public and any cats that may be out there, is another matter altogether...

Written by Tim Whittard


BBC News (2003) Zoo accused over lion sale. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

BBC Press Office (2003) UK's Worst … ? exposes illegal trade in wild animals. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

Brown, M. (2020) Has Anything Interesting EVER Happened In Sutton? Londonist. [Online] – Available from: (Accessed on 17th August 2020).

Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) Her Majesty’s Stationary Office. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

DEFRA (2012) Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 6th December 2020).

Gray, M. (2020) Residents of English town want millionaire’s big cats out after attack. New York Post. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 4th December 2020).

Glenton, G. (1971) A man’s pet pumas savaged two boys. PRIVATE ZOO A MENACE JURY TOLD. The Daily Mirror. (Printed on 14th December 1971).

Hansard (1970) House of Lords. Animals Bill. 29 October 1970. Volume 312. [Online] – Available from: (Accessed on 17th August 2020).

Pattinson, R. (2020) Terrifying moment stable girl, 16, is mauled by mountain lion kept in private owner’s UK back garden. The Sun. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

Santayana, G. (1906) The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress.

Shepherd, S., Mills, A. and Shoff, W. (2014) Human Attacks by Large Felid Carnivores in Captivity and in the Wild. WILDERNESS & ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE (25) p.220–230. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

Sussex History Forum (2014) An unlikely happening in Sutton. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

Whittard, T. (2020a) On the Origins of the 'Dangerous Wild Animals Act' of 1976. Vocal Media. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

Whittard, T. (2020b) On the Origins of the Naturalised Big Cats of Britain. Vocal Media. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 2nd December 2020).

Zoo Licensing Act (1981) Her Majesty's Stationery Office. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 6th December 2020).

exotic pets

About the Creator

Tim Whittard

Tim Whittard is a mental health nurse specialising in psychiatric intensive care. Additional interests include; parapsychology and zoology/cryptozoology. He has written and published several essays and also a bestselling book.

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