When nine-year-old Toby Taylor ran into the kitchen on Friday afternoon and told his mother there was a cheetah in their back garden, she assumed he was playing a trick.
So when she looked out of her kitchen window she was understandably shocked to see the world's fastest land animal gazing straight back at her. The exotic big cat, Akea, had escaped from a zoo near their family home in the village of Hamerton in Cambridgeshire.
"I started to have a go at Toby for slamming the door," said his mother Jules, "when he ran up to me shouting, 'Mummy, there's a cheetah in the garden.' I thought he was pulling my leg but he was white, shaking and shrill. We peered out of the kitchen window and there it was, sitting bang in the middle of our lawn, looking at the house."
Toby had been playing on his bike when he saw the 6ft-long cat, capable of reaching speeds of 75mph, standing 15ft away. Dropping his bicycle, he ran 40ft to the house, where he watched the big cat sink its claws into the bike's tyres and take a chunk out of its leather seat. "I panicked," he said. "It looked massive, really scary. I thought it would attack me. I ran as fast as I could."
Mrs Taylor, 41, said: "I figured it must have escaped from the next door zoo but I was in too much of a state to find their phone number. I was in a blind panic so I phoned 999."
The operator contacted Hamerton Zoo, leaving mother and son waiting nervously inside for 20 minutes, with Toby's labrador Otto guarding the door until Akea's keepers arrived.
They harnessed the cat and locked it in the family's stables until a crate was brought to take it back to the zoological park. Its management blamed the cheetah's escape on faulty electric fencing which has now been replaced and dismissed the idea that it posed a threat, saying the hand-reared three-year-old was "completely tame".
Andrew Swales, the zoo's director, said: "Akea was away for a few minutes, visited our neighbour, had his harness and lead put on and returned home. When our keepers arrived in our neighbour's garden, Akea was happily playing with a bicycle, which must have reminded him of one of his toys.
"He wouldn't pose any danger, and his reaction to strangers would be the same as a pet dog – either a friendly greeting or a guarded retreat."
Mrs Taylor said: "We had no idea it was hand reared. It was very scary. You don't expect a cheetah in your garden."