The Associated Press
BODMIN MOOR, England Ä Children who live on a moor scoured by wind and water in England's southwest don't believe in Scotland's Loch Ness monster. But they're sure the Beast of Bodmin Moor is for real.
''Something lives on the moor. People have seen it with their own eyes,'' said 10-year-old Darren Squire.
One of those who swears he's seen the creature is Darren's classmate, Ross Kemp, also 10. The beast, he said, is big and black and a little scary.
In a hunt that recalls the Sherlock Holmes adventure, ''The Hound of the Baskervilles,'' the government agreed last week to spend $13,000 to investigate ''the possible existence of one or more wild catlike animals on Bodmin Moor.''
Government zoologists will be sent out to check on local claims that the wild cats have been mauling livestock and frightening children.
Shrouded in mist and mystery, Bodmin Moor is a great, lonely swath of land pocked by gorse and bogs, about 250 miles southwest of London.
Legend holds that King Arthur threw his sword Excalibur into Dozmary Pool on the moor. In the 17th and 18th centuries, smugglers hid from tax collectors in the 10-square mile wasteland.
For more than four years, Rosemary Rhodes, 56, has tried to persuade others that wild cats live on Bodmin Moor and are responsible for savagely killing farm animals. In April, Rhodes sold the last 50 sheep at her Ninestones Farm after four ewes were ripped to death.
''I've been called, a hysterical, menopausal, attention-seeking female,'' she said. ''But more and more people are believing me.''
Gesturing across a broad expanse of drab land, Rhodes said she is unconcerned that more people haven't seen the beast. ''As you can see, you can hide a regiment of cavalry and Hannibal's elephant out there.''
In what she admits has become an obsession, she and friend Don Rogers often go out after midnight with a powerful light plugged into the battery of her Land Rover.
She has captured fuzzy images of large black cats with long tails and the face of what she believes is a wild cub.
Rhodes is convinced the Beast of Bodmin Moor is in fact an assortment of pumas, also known as cougars, and black panthers.
''They are not illusions or delusions or pink panthers,'' Rhodes said. ''They are so graceful, so beautiful. It is such a buzz to see one.''
Douglas Richardson, curator of mammals at London Zoo, said he has seen Rhodes' videotape and confirms that the animal is a black panther.
Wild cats are extremely rare in Britain, though pumas have been found everywhere from British Columbia Ä with a similar climate Ä to South America and are adaptable to various climates.
One theory is that most were pets that were set loose after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act made it illegal to own such creatures without a costly license.
Peter Keen, a dog handler for the local police force, said he has seen wild cats four times. He estimates the population is ''into the double figures'' within 25 miles of Ninestones Farm.
Keen fears that as their numbers increase, the wild cats will become more territorial and aggressive. ''I wouldn't want them killed. We've just got to do as they do in America and learn to control them.''
In the cozy pub at Jamaica Inn Ä made famous by Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name, about romance, smuggling and murder Ä patrons tell tales of the Beast of Bodmin Moor.
Steve Parkyn said he saw the beast 18 months ago lying on a farm lane.
''The thing that actually spooked me the most was its speed. If it had come towards us . it could have had us,'' he said. ''It's not a myth. I can guarantee that was a puma.''
Tony Turner, the manager of the Jamaica Inn, said bookings rise with publicity about the Beast of Bodmin Moor.
''I'd hate to see them kill it,'' he said. ''A little mystery is good for business.''
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