Most of the lions in Essex are the stone variety on the gateways of city boy mansions.

But the missing lion in Essex has sparked rumours that the big cat alleged to be terrifying farmers, tourists and locals could be a privately owned pet - and not an escapee from a zoo or circus.

It might sound like a risky animal to keep as a pet, but a survey by Big Cats in Britain found in 2006 that 12 lions, 14 tigers, two cheetahs, 16 wild cats, 18 lynx and 50 leopards are being kept by licensed private owners, some of 154 non-domestic cats.

pet

Many lions are kept as pets in the UK, according to figures

There are also almost 500 assorted monkeys and 2,000 ostriches in private ownership as well as more than 250 poisonous snakes and 50 crocodiles.

Under the Dangerous Wild Animal Act 1976, private owners buy a licence from their local authority.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) also licenses cross-breeds, like the Bengal cat, which is a cross between the domestic cat and the wild Asian leopard cat, and wolf-dog hybrids.

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If you fancy keeping a tiger, you can't keep it in a kennel. You need to prove to the council that:

• you are able to keep your animal in a suitable and secure place
• your animal won’t cause a nuisance or put the public in danger
• you are capable of taking proper care of your animal

And in Northern Ireland, the government has published a guide to keeping big cats.

Advice on feeding should send shivers down the spines of Essex residents: "These cats require a meat diet. Whole prey items should preferably be fed, including the skin and bones.

"It is common practice in zoos to starve large cats for one day a week, to prevent obesity and to mimic the natural gorging and fasting feeding methods used in the wild."

cheetah cubs

Cheetahs are also kept as pets in the UK

But before the act was introduced in 1976, getting hold of big cats in the UK was much easier, with one lion even being sold by Harrods.

Abandoned big cats have been found numerous times in the UK, with a lynx shot in suffolk in 1991 after it tucked into a flock of sheep, and a female puma was captured in Scotland in 1980.

The Sun newspaper recently published a list of "big cat sightings" in the UK, including:

SHROPSHIRE 1989
A jungle cat was killed after being hit by a car in a remote part of the county. In 2008 police said there had been 13 reported sightings of big cats in the previous three years.

ISLE OF WIGHT 1993
Islander Stuart Skinner shot a leopard, thinking it was a rampaging fox. He didn’t report it for several months because he thought he had shot a protected species.

N IRELAND 1996
A large Eurasian lynx was gunned down by an RUC police officer after reports of a lion being spotted. It was believed to have escaped from a private collection.