EPISODE XXV: ALIEN BIG CATS

It was a typical evening in the Grampian National Park. the sun was just beginning to set as a a local tourist stopped along the rural roadside to snap some photos of the scenic landscape before him…

As dusk settled, the photographer was set to take one last shot of the treeline against the dramatic sunset when he stopped short… his breath caught in his throat at the sight of two large glowing eyes peering out from the bushes. He lowered the camera as a low growling rumble came from the direction of the fearsome yellow eyes, narrowed into a slitted gaze.

Sweating profusely, pulse pounding in his eardrums, the tourist’s eyes darted from the bush to his car parked a little more than 20 metres away. Could he make it to the vehicle before the unknown creature had time to leap from its hiding place?

Not risking another second, the man went bezerk, throwing his arms in the air, screaming like a banshee as he barreled toward his vehicle, eyes closed in terror until he slammed up against the side of the door. Wrenching it open, as he quickly scrambed back into the drivers seat.

Eyes bulging, heart pounding with adrenaline, the man watched from his car as the creature leaped out from its hiding place, and stealthily made its way up the embankment, across the highway and into the forest on the other side. It was massive. Bigger than any feral cat the man had ever seen, graceful as a panther, this tourist had just escaped the clutches of Australia’s most elusive cryptid: the phantom panther.

 

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For centuries, witnesses across Australia have encountered creatures that are quite out of place… over the years there have been reports of big cats roaming in the forests, attacking livestock and even people. Thousands of people have seen these creatures, yet officially they do not exist. Jet black panthers, massive tawny pumas and other alien big cats resembling lesser-known animals such as the Tasmanian Tiger, the ancient Thylacoleo amongst others. The sightings spread out from the epicentre of New South Wales in the south east corner of Australia, leading up toward the Queensland of the north and to the western provinces around Perth.  

 Photo: Justin Vallejo (2008)

Photo: Justin Vallejo (2008)

 

In the early 1990’s, one grazier had had enough. Despite fear of ridicule, the farmer called in the department of Natural Resources and Environment in Geelong and wildlife, where expert David Cass took up the case. Cass: "It was just peeled open, the force that was applied just staggered me, it was bizarre [...] The landowner was no dummy and he was a good bushman, so I took what he said seriously [...] Local people were hesitant to talk, they thought it could be big cats ... but they were scared of being called a looney,"

Cass collected usual scat found at the scene of one of the maulings, it was distinct in its size, color, smell (very pungent). The scat was examined by Barbara Triggs, leading expert in analyzing animal scat in Australia, who did a comparative analysis using a sample from a known zoo leopard. Her findings: "There was a possibility that the Winchelsea faeces were from a big cat such as a black leopard." (CFZaustralia.com, John Mclennan) However, Triggs analysis was considered non-conclusive, and while other experts offered up opinions similar to Triggs’, the case faded from public consciousness and the scat/hairs collected from the unknown sample were stored away until the 2000’s.

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That’s when things started to get interesting. Dr. Stephen Frankenberg of La Trobe University Department of Zoology performed DNA testing on the unknown sample using modern technology that was simply unavailable in the 1990’s. Frankenberg discovered something startling: the DNA came back Pathera Pardus, Leopard. While Dr Frankenberg did not preclude the possibility that the sample had been contaminated, his findings support the idea that there are predatory felines much larger than feral cats wandering the outback of Australia.

 And indeed, many Australians will swear they have seen panthers, pumas and even lions stalking rural areas, some seen feasting on the carcasses of recent kills, others wandering the tall grasses and forested areas, looking for their next meal no doubt. In 1964 another intriguing case came to light in the form of a box brownie camera shot depicting what appeared to be an unknown striped mammal positioned in dense foliage. Known as the Gilla Martin Photo, the shot was blurred and of poor quality, so much so that it appeared that the creature was either headless, had its head obscured by foliage, or was very narrow, long and deep set in the eye area. Either way, the photo was instantly controversial, as was the story that went with it:

“Martin reported that, while on holiday one day in 1964, she was driving along between Goroke and Apsley. With time to spare, she chose to drive along the dirt track near Ozenkadnook. She’d been photographing relatives while at Goroke (where her cousin lived) and had the camera next to her, on the front seat. In the woods close to the road, she caught sight of an unusual animal, standing at the edge of the scrub. She stopped the car and snapped one photo, just as the animal began to run away [a close-up of its head is shown below].”

 Artist depiction of what Martin may have seen that day in 1964.

Artist depiction of what Martin may have seen that day in 1964.

 

Many believe the photo and the story to be a hoax, citing the suspicious ‘support-like’ peg protruding from the foliage below the abdomen of the unknown creature. However, it is tough to make a call either way as the original negatives have since been lost by the Wimmera Mail-Times, the original newspaper that paid Martin for the photo, making any attempts at forensic analysis impossible. Martin and her family refuse to admit the photo to be faked, and as late at 1999 Gilla’s brother came to her defense, saying that they were simple country folk who barely knew how to snap a photo much less tamper with it. Despite their insistence, the photo remains mired in controversy.

 Rilla Martin's 964 Box Brownie Photo

Rilla Martin's 964 Box Brownie Photo

 Captive Thylacines in the 1930's - could this be what Martin saw that day?

Captive Thylacines in the 1930's - could this be what Martin saw that day?

So where could these alien big cats have originated from? Some speculate that centuries ago animals from other lands may have travelled aboard exploratory ships and found themselves abandoned on the continent… This would account for very early sightings perhaps and does not exclude the possibility of multiple different nations travelling the area and either catching or depositing exotic animals from other lands. The Chinese reportedly sailed through the area in the 1300’s and perhaps even earlier, and texts survive describing how foreign creatures such as giraffe were transported back to China via boat. One could wildly speculate all day on different scenarios that could have played out on board ships carrying apex predators such a jaguars, lions and pumas… but alas, this is the stuff of legends.

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More modern ideas include circus escapes as in the case of Vaughan King, an animal handler and founder of Australian Big Cats Research Organization who spoke with a former circus owner who admitted to ‘incidents’ and escapes of multiple big cats like jaguars and panthers. Many instances like this have probably occurred and gone unreported over the decades if not centuries, some of which are detailed in Lang and Williams’ work Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers, one of the best, most thorough books on the subject.

Another theory centres on WWII soldiers stationed in Australia… Tales abound about US troops stationed all over Australia, one in particular tells the tale of a troop of soldiers in the Grampians who had pumas, panthers and lions as ‘mascots’ that Australian Quarantine officials ordered put down. Instead of killing the animals they released them into the wild and thus a population grew. Another legend puts the timeline back much further… to the 1800’s: “An article in the Mail-Times in 1989 cited an 1877 report which raised the question of whether wealthy young squatters had released lions in the mountains to kill ostriches and deer introduced by Longerenong Station founder Samuel Wilson.” ( Wimmera mail-times, 2016?).

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The topic of Alien Big Cats in Australia is rich with the lore of dangerous predators lurking in rural areas, terrorizing livestock and the keepers of these animals. For more information and details not covered in the blog go check out the full podcast episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all your favourite podcatchers. And let us know what you think about Alien Big Cats - do they exist, if so, what are they - and where did they come from? Reach out at Intotheportalmailbox@gmail.com - we’d love to hear from you!

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Written by Amber Rae Bouchard