Australia's Panther Mystery

                                                 The Prince of Darkness -
Australia's Panther Mystery
By Andrew McKenna *The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Lions often suffocate their prey. They bite down on the muzzle until the lung capillaries erupt and the animal drowns in its own blood. You see the pictures of gazelles and zebras kicking, their eyes a glassy, sightless doe-brown. It’s brutal but mesmerising; you can’t turn away.
When dogs kill, a sea of blood spatters a wide area as the prey flees in terror. They tear chunks of flesh from its body while it stands, and it is inevitably pulled to earth. It looks barbarous. You’d step in if you could, especially when the prey is a fawn.
The panther hunts by stealth, dropping on its prey from the boulder above, the branch behind. It appears out of the foliage then vanishes like a shade. It rarely makes a noise, and when it hunts it is silent, its eyes scarcely blinking. It lands on its prey’s back and bites with powerful jaws through the neck.
The Wombat State Forest around Trentham in Victoria’s central highlands was burnt out in the big fires of 1998, but the eucalypts have filled the canopy again and the undergrowth has returned. Gum trees, still scarred and blackened, have regrown to hide the secrets of the forest.
Vast mounds of tailings from nineteenth-century gold diggings have gradually been reclaimed by thickets of gorse, or are staked out by farmers’ fences. Caves, mine shafts, car wrecks, bones, dreams, all litter the forest floor. Maybe there are even species stirring in the forest yet to have science shine its hard light into their gene pools.
Back in May, on a near-deserted road winding through the Wombat, Amy Espeseth-Turner saw something that should never have been in a eucalypt forest. It was a cloud-blown day, damp, windy, but the sun still lingered above the horizon and hinted at a weak yellow light in the gaps between the trees.
‘I was driving home from work through Bullarto,’ Amy says. ‘It was very bushy, and you go around this curve at the kilometre signpost. I was driving at 100 kmh and it was just getting dark, not 5.30 yet. I always drive with my headlights on. All of a sudden from one side to the other leapt this black mountain lion. It was like a black streak of lightning.
‘I’m from Wisconsin, so I’ve seen them before. My uncle was with the UPS (United Postal Service), and he used to deliver mail to people who kept injured mountain lions, so I’ve seen them up close.
‘It wasn’t a dog, it wasn’t a wallaby. It wasn’t someone dressed in a cat suit. At first I thought everyone might think I was crazy, but a lot of people have similar stories.
‘The radio was on real loud, so I didn’t hear a sound or anything. I don’t know if it was one bound or two. They can jump an incredible amount. I know there is a possibility of having a black mountain lion; there was one in Wisconsin.
‘I hadn’t been drinking, I wasn’t even tired. I didn’t have time to pat my brakes. It leapt across the road. It was real long, it just went "whoosh" into the forest, and it was just gone. It was beautiful.’
The panther is the ambush specialist. You’re walking through the bush or jogging on the outskirts of town, and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. You don’t hear it, you don’t see it. You feel a tremendous kick as it springs onto your back and snaps your spine. It bites your neck and your limbs flop. You may not be dead yet, but a feeling of comfort and security floods your body, as if you’re sitting by a roaring fire with a few drinks inside you, or you’ve just had an orgasm. Glands pump your body full of euphoria-inducing hormones – nature’s way of showing a little mercy.
On the outskirts of LA a few years ago a rogue mountain lion developed a taste for joggers. Retribution was swift, and came through the barrel of high-powered rifles.
If God is dead, (and that’s not certain, though after Auschwitz, Cambodia, Port Arthur and countless high school slayings we may have lost sight of Him), where do we look? Or have we outgrown the notion that we need God at all? And if that is so, do we look for something other?
During the last century, we perfected the sanitisation of death. We learned to hide it, to make it look as if the dead were having little more than a beautiful slumber. When characters were shot in the movies they generally fell down and lay still – you didn’t see them writhing, screaming in agony, shitting their pants in fear, gasping for breath or pleading for their lives.
Death was taken out of our hands when our grandparents, our parents, and God forbid, our children died. We hired professionals who came in and cleaned up the overflow and took the body away, smoothly, quickly.
We’d see them again, perhaps, the dead, cleaned up, almost lifelike after the embalmer had worked his business. Little more than a beautiful sleep.
On Tuesday, 8 August the Midland Express newspaper, based in central Victoria, ran a front page story about the local panther, discussing a video that aired on television that week. Don Gunn, the journalist who wrote the story, said the Midland had been following the story of the panther in the bush for years.
‘In my experience it’s the first photographic evidence in the fauna of an animal we previously didn’t know about,’ he says of the video.
‘What it is, I’m not prepared to say. It’s not a feral dog, it’s not a feral cat. It had powerful shoulders, big paws and a curved tail.’
The Midland Express has, according to Gunn, run stories since the 1880s of a mysterious cat ravaging sheep flocks.
‘One of the biggest attractions (of the 1880s) was the travelling circus,’ Gunn says. ‘Invariably it was billed as the Wild Animal Show, and there were about 150 around. In the absence of the RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), if the proprietors were on the verge of going bust, you could imagine they might let the animals go in the bush. You could have a sustainable genetic pool. It’s not a creature, but a breeding population of creatures.’
As for the television footage?
‘I felt roughly like Scott of the Antarctic,’ Gunn says, ‘arriving at the South Pole to find someone else had got there first – the man with the chequebook.’
The ‘man with the chequebook’ was the 9 network, which paid an undisclosed sum to a farmer near Kyneton. Ostensibly, the farmer with the video camera had set up the shoot as he was concerned about stock losses. The video shows a cat-like figure loping down a steep hill in broad daylight. It disappears for a short time, but it is too far away to distinguish where it goes. It emerges again, goes a little further, then disappears from view. The animal is black, has powerful forequarters and a curled tail.
The country it moves through is open, a cream-coloured grassy savannah, indicating the footage may have been shot in summer.
It could be digitally created. It could be a large feral cat, which, like rats in New York City, grow fearfully big in the bush.
It could also be a panther.
In The Songlines Bruce Chatwin considers African fossil records, which indicate that during our distant ancestors’ wanderings in Africa, a powerful carnivore named Dinofelis was loose.
‘It had straight, dagger-like killing teeth,’ he writes. ‘Its lower jaw could slam shut; and since, with its mighty cumbersome build, it must have hunted by stealth, it must also have hunted by night. It may have been spotted. It could have been striped. It might, like a panther, have been black.’
Chatwin writes that Dinofelis bones have been unearthed from the Transvaal to Ethiopia, humanity’s original range. It may have been a predator that specialised on the early hominids, our forebears.
‘A combination of robust jaws,’ writes Bob Brain, director of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, ‘and a well developed component in the dentition would have allowed Dinofelis to eat all parts of a primate skeleton except the skull. The hypothesis that Dinofelis was a specialist killer of the primates is persuasive.’
Dinofelis lived in dense forests with ample cover where it could pounce on prey. Night may not have been necessary for hunting, but some sort of cover would. Dinofelis predation is a possible reason for our ancestors to have moved out of the forests and into the savannas, allowing them to better avoid predators. An animal with sharp eyesight such as a hominid could have seen a predator hiding in the grass of a sunlit savanna more easily than one prowling through dense forests.
European settlers in Australia often referred to the bush as a ‘jungle’. It was something to be feared, exploited, and ultimately, overcome. It was unhealthy; it harboured disease and grotesque creatures.
‘With very trivial exception it is one huge, unreclaimed forest,’ wrote colonial diarist W Howitt in 1855. ‘Now, I do not believe that any country, under any climate in the world, can be pronounced a thoroughly healthy country, while it is in this state. The immense quantity of vegetable matter rotting on the surface of the earth … cannot be very healthy. The choked-up valleys, dense with scrub and rank grasses and weeds, and the equally rank vegetation of swamps, cannot tend to health. All these evils, the axe and the plough, and the fire of settlers, will gradually and eventually remove; and when it is done here, I do not believe there will be a more healthy country on the globe.’
Once we transformed the bush from jungle to savanna we would rest more easily.
In May in Daylesford, a small,central Victorian tourist town, at least one other panther sighting was reported, but sightings around there go back as far as 1902. Plenty of stories do the rounds about how the panther got into the bush. There’s no scientific evidence for them, but there’s no scientific evidence for many things and we have believed in them all the same.
Gold diggers from California let them go. Travelling shows that went broke let their big cats loose in the bush. North American Indians who came out to work the railroad released them near the settlement that still bears their name – Cherokee. US servicemen stationed in Australia during the Second World War liberated them, because quarantine regulations notwithstanding, every second platoon had a panther as a mascot. So the story goes. Take your pick.
Peter Straud is curator of mammals – of which carnivores is one section – at Melbourne Zoo. He’s worked in zoos since 1977.
‘I think (panthers) are marvellous animals,’ he says. ‘One of the things that has always intrigued me, and kept a glimmer of hope that they may be out there, is that leopards in particular are extraordinary in their ability to live near people and for the people not to know they’re there. So you’re always intrigued that they might be out there.’
Panthers are normally silent, but they can get rowdy. Their vocalisations have been described as chirps, peeps, whistles, purrs, moans, screams, growls and hisses. Females signal their readiness to mate by yowling or caterwauling.
One way panthers communicate with each other and maintain their own territory is with ‘scrapes’. Scrapes are piles of soil and leaves with urine or faeces on top. The panther makes a scrape by flicking its hind legs, leaving two parallel streaks on the ground. Scrapes are between 10 and 20 cm (four and eight inches) long and you can often see the grooves left by the claws. Most scrapes are left by males staking territory.
Panthers hone their claws by scratching on logs or trees. These scratches are probably not a form of territory marking or communication with other panthers, but they do let us know they’re around.
No one has found scrapes or tree scratches in the central highlands of Victoria. No one, neither a straying child nor a family dog that we know about, has been taken by a hungry panther.
‘Could it be,’ Chatwin writes, ‘that Dinofelis was our Beast? A beast set aside from all the other avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went? But whom, in the end, we got the better of? … for suddenly, in the upper levels (of the fossil record), man is there. He is in charge and the predators are no longer with him.’
If Dinofelis was our Beast, could we have a kind of ‘ancestral memory’ of him?
Someone suggests I speak to Wayne Knight, who is part of an organisation that chances out into the bush at night with infra-red cameras, hot thermoses and trip wires in an attempt to capture the Beast on film.
I speak with Knight by telephone. He tells me he lives near Ballarat, but is reluctant to talk about what he does. He won’t meet me in a cafe in town, but does agree that if I come to Ballarat on Saturday and call him, he will give me directions to get to his house, a ‘hut in the bush’.
‘Peanut-brained trophy hunters are a real danger,’ he says. ‘I have the utmost respect for the animal. I’d turn my back on a puma or panther but I wouldn’t turn my back on the lads.’
When I reassure him that I will tape our interview so I will not misquote him, he says:
‘People do that only once with me.’
‘Why is that?’ I ask.
‘They cease to exist on the face of the earth.’
That he says it coolly gives me cause to hesitate. There is a quality to his voice, more to do with the pauses, a precision in his choice of words, that makes me think twice about driving up a narrow dusty lane into the forest to meet the panther man on his own territory. I’ve been told he frequently wears black leather.
I call back and leave a message with a woman that I can’t make it on Saturday and would call Wayne soon for a telephone interview. A day later he calls me.
‘I have talked to the people in the district where I work,’ his message says, ‘and we have come to the conclusion that it would be very unwise to talk much about what I do. I’ve been doing it for about six years now. We have a sort of code of ethics we abide by and to break that trust is something I can’t do. The concept of truth, and giving names and dates and everything –’ and there the voice cuts out.
I call him back and he tells me it’s a bond he has with these people, a ‘covenant of trust. It covers a big area, through the Grampians and down to Colac. If I were to talk to you it would be breaking the bond of truth I have with them. I prefer to say nothing rather than tell the truth. I would not show anything publicly. I won’t break that trust for money.’
I tell him I understand that, and he gets back to the panther.
‘Now he’s complaining that people may go and shoot him,’ he says.
I pause, then ask,
‘Is there something out there?’
‘In my mind there’s absolutely no doubt. I’ve seen more sheep dead by neglect than by what he’s killed. But I just will not break that covenant of trust.’
‘Well, thanks.’
‘That’s all right, mate.’
I hang up feeling spooked.
From California and Tibet to Tierra del Fuego and Bullarto we treasure our stories about The Beast. The Beast insists on breaking into our dreams. We carry the stories with us, inside us. There’s the Sasquatch of north-western USA and Canada, the Bunyip in Australia, the dolpohin man of Brazil, the Abominable Snowman of the Himalaya and, at a stretch, Nessie in that Scottish loch.
And the panther. We have carried Dinofelis with us into the modern era and into the thirsty shade of the eucalypt forest.
I speak to Dorothy Williams, Secretary, ‘or more sort of administration, really’, she says, from ARFRA, The Australian Rare Fauna Research Association. She lives in Monbulk, on the fringes of Melbourne in the leafy Dandenong Ranges, where, apparently, sightings are common.
‘We’re basically an amateur body,’ she says, ‘but we do have scientists in the organisaton. We go out frequently in the Dandenongs where there are plenty of sightings. I’ve seen a black puma or panther, and I’ve seen a grey puma with a couple of cubs. I think it was grey but it was at night.
‘Sightings come in frequently – there is a vast collection, there have been 60 this year.’
The organisation was founded by a man who had an encounter with a big cat in the forest in the Dandenongs in 1984.
‘Wayne Knight is associated with us,’ Dorothy says, ‘although he’s a slightly unfinancial member at the moment … There are photographs, but they won’t sit still and pose nicely for you, will they?’
Has ARFRA found any scrapings?
‘What do you mean by scrapings? … We’ve found prints and scratch marks and bare spots on overhanging branches where they like to sit. It’s hard to identify scratchings. We have several casts of very large prints that match with puma and panther prints, and reports of vocalisations like big cat noises in the area. There’s also plenty of predation. We don’t know they’re cat kills, but they correspond with the way cats kill.’
In what way, I ask her.
‘I’m not sure I can go into details. I’m only the secretary. There have been photos of horses and large calves with scratches and gouges, and horses and large calves killed in the Dandenongs. There’s a large body of evidence throughout Victoria.’
She says a mammal curator from the Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney sent them a carefully worded letter to the effect that he agreed they had a large body of evidence indicating there was a puma on the loose.
‘I don’t have the letter here at the moment, but it was early 1995.
‘I think the film on telly was pretty good, and I know one of our members has a tape that’s pretty clear – it’s no little pussycat. But unless you have the animal in your hands dead or alive you can’t convince everyone.’
I ask her if spotlighting hunters have ever shot a panther. Considering there must be hundreds of shooters in the bush on any given night throughout the country, surely they’ve taken a potshot at a panther from time to time?
‘There are about 30 big cats have been shot dead,’ she says. ‘But that evidence has not necessarily been presented in the right places. I’m not sure whether the media would be the right place. If we had one it would have to go to a scientific organisation, if we got physical evidence of any sort. We haven’t had a dead panther handed in.
‘There are Tasmanian Devils too, on the mainland. We’ve had a couple of road kills so they’re a little more accepted.’
Perhaps we could ask: what is the result of the death of death? Death has been pushed to the outskirts of town and God has gone with it. The two have been inextricably linked for so long in the West that you can’t lose one without the other.
But here’s the rub: at the same time as death is sanitised, it has perhaps never been more apparent in our lives, in its cruelty, in its randomness, in its clutter and untimeliness. The Concord falls on a French village and we watch rescuers remove charred bodies as we eat dinner. Our clock radios wake us to news of police lying in pools of blood by the side of the road. One click off our favourite search engine and grotesque images of death and damage flood our screens. What meaning is there in this violence? What consequence should we look for?
Part of the construct of any community is its stories, but as the 20th century rolls into the 21st the stories we increasing tell take death as their theme. So many deadly stories now jostle for airspace that only the most sensational, brutal or weird stand up above the morass and wave at us for our attention.
If we were preyed upon for millennia, perhaps those piercing green eyes staring at us from out of the dark were imprinted into our genetic code. As we shivered in our caves and the Beast came and snatched our stragglers, generation after generation, century upon century for millennia, our brains gradually became hot-wired for terror. Was the original bogeyman a feline – Dinofelis – with a taste for human flesh?
Just as our capacity to think increased, or we learned to use our opposable thumb, or to stand upright, and those things show in our genetic code, were we also wired to be frightened of the Beast?
No doubt now they’ve mapped the human genome they’ll isolate the gene for our fear of the Beast. Even though he’s gone, our genetics still warn us about him.
Nice theory, but children’s author and academic specialising in myth at the University of Ballarat, Alice Mills, dismisses it. She believes the myth of the Beast is more about culture than genetics.
‘Why are people so keen to believe it’s true?’ she asks. ‘Carl Sagan has a great book arguing that dragons are the ancestral memory of dinosaurs, but that doesn’t explain why we want it so much. It’s more a thing of wonder than terror. The mythic resonance is a longing for something that science can’t explain away. It’s similar to people who’ve seen aliens or flying saucers – it’s a longing for the unknown. I’m sure part of the wish is that not everything can be explained. We can map the world with satellites, but we’re longing for contact with a new species.’
Mills wonders why the Beast should have appeared as a panther, and not as a Bunyip or the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger.
‘The panther is not an Australian animal,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure if people really want to be scared, or whether Jung is right when he talks about archetypes. Panthers are associated with Dionysus. It’s not just an animal, but a divine animal.’
Dionysus was the god of fertility and wine, one of the most important Greek gods and the subject of profuse and contradictory legends. Thought to be the son of either Zeus and Persephone or of Zeus and Semele, Dionysus was attended by a carousing band of satyrs, maenads and nymphs – a live-hard, die-young kind of god. He taught humans viticulture but inflicted appalling revenge if you dared cross him. Worship of him usually involved getting drunk and having orgies, and there were plenty of festivals in his honour.
Mills admits that around Buninyong, on the bushy edge of Ballarat, similar stories about some kind of Beast have some currency.
Stories about the panther are far more widespread than that, with sightings recorded around the Grampians and, in eastern Victoria, in the Alpine National Park.
North of Adelaide, in South Australia, ever since the demise of Two Wells Lion Park, there are stories of cats prowling the mallee scrub. Don Gunn says he has had reports of a ‘hot spot’ outside Perth in Western Australia.
You have to wonder if our capacity for skepticism has deserted us. In a world full of science we look for comfort in the surreal. While I was researching this story, I heard inexplicable yowling noises beyond my own backyard in Castlemaine – after all, the bush is only a few blocks away.
In Florida about 90 percent of the panther diet is feral hog, white-tailed deer, raccoon and armadillo. Occasionally she eats rabbits, rats, birds and even alligators. Although cattle are abundant on private farms within the panther’s range, she rarely takes them. Two of her favourite foods, feral pig and armadillo, are not indigenous to North America. Pigs are descendants of escapees the Spanish brought to Florida, and armadillos are from South America, a favourite menu-item, of course, for the Latin branch of the family.
Where feral pigs are abundant, some panthers will prey almost exclusively on them. She is an adaptable animal. Pigs, armadillos – horses, kangaroos, sheep?
‘I’d be looking for any marks on the animal,’ says zoo man Peter Straud. ‘The way the carcass had been used, teethmarks on bones, the way the animal had been eaten in terms of which bits were eaten first. I’m not an expert but I know there’d be a pattern.
‘The trouble is you need to find a prey animal that has not been dead for too long, and in Australia that’s not always possible. Sometimes you might never find the animal.
‘If there’s anything out there it has to be a population. In the wild few cats get past 15, so there’d have to be a breeding population. Due to the relative paucity of prey animals, stock predation would be far more of an issue.’
No one in central Victoria has reported the numbers of stock losses necessary to sustain a breeding population of panthers. Whenever the local dogs get together for a kill there’s hell to pay if Ralph has slipped his collar.
Native fauna is under pressure, but that is more likely from the introduction of Vulpes vulpes, the European fox, or from forestry operations, than from the introduction of one of the more than 20 subspecies of Puma concolor. I suppose.
‘Most of the alleged stock kills don’t look like big cat kills,’ says Straud. ‘Anyone with a reasonable forensic approach would be able to say whether it was a cat or dogs. Nobody seems to have come up with conclusive footprints, hair or scat, which is what you’d expect with a population of animals. I’m very skeptical personally but I’m prepared to be surprised.’
‘A black Labrador is a fair-sized beast!’ says Joan Endacott of the Daylesford Historical Society, throwing a well aimed bucket of skepticism onto the flames of supposition.
Jane Bigelow is a psychologist who lives on the edge of the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford.
‘The farmers certainly believe there are panthers around here,’ she says. ‘Some people want to make a big thing out of it and others don’t. I’m skeptical, but … a few people have said they’ve seen it stalking a lamb in broad daylight on a nearby property. I consider them to be level-headed people, so I must admit I feel more open-minded about the possibility.
‘Our property has a lot of gorse on it, there are caves and some of the land is fairly rough. I do wonder whether animals can adapt under different conditions. If I’m here on my own and I go wandering in the dark there are some odd noises …
‘People want to believe in it. They’re looking for a sense of mystery, something beyond themselves, beyond the mundane, but I don’t think there’s this simple psychological explanation. They want to believe in mysteries.’
Let’s reach for the myth when all else fails. Chatwin writes:
‘Has not the whole of history been a search for false monsters? A nostalgia for the Beast we have lost? For the Gentleman who bowed out gracefully – and left us with the weapon in our hand?’
On an evening around 6 May, teenager Matthew Layfield was at home in Daylesford. He lives on the road towards Hepburn Springs, where the big forest mounts the roadside and cacophanies of parrots swoop in to thieve plums from backyard fruit trees. In autumn (fall) the mist rolls in out of the Wombat and a stark moon throws shadows along tracks cut through the trees.
‘I saw a big black cat, I suppose you’d call it, bigger than our Rottweiler,’ Layfield says. ‘It was probably 9.30 at night, and it was dark. It was over our back fence. I heard the dog barking so I got the torch and shone it over there. I saw its eyes – they were green – and I saw it standing near a pine tree.’
Was he frightened?
‘Yes I did feel frightened. It made this noise that made my knees go weak, it was pretty high pitched, nothing you’d hear from an Australian animal or a dog.’
Moans, screams…yowling or caterwauling.
Darkness is the symbol of misery, ignorance, adversity and death. But God also dwells in darkness. On Mount Sinai, Moses ‘drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.’ Psalms 97:2 describes the inscrutable nature of God’s workings among the sons of men, saying, ‘Clouds and darkness are round about him.’ The ‘day of darkness’ in Joel 2:2, is a symbol of the murkiness overhanging all divine proceedings, but ‘works of darkness’ are also impure actions.
Perth, Adelaide, Daylesford, Trentham, Colac, the Grampian Ranges, the Dandenongs … as God retreats, maybe His fallen Foe, the dark spectre of the night, arrives to fill the vacuum.
Perhaps we have evicted The Beast from the forest and God from the Heavens, but we have doggedly nurtured Him in our hearts.

Andrew McKenna retains sole ã 2001 for this article.