Pumas under microscope
Pumas under microscope
HENRY DALKIN -Ararat Advertiser Tuesday, October 17, 2006
The question of whether or not large puma-like cats prowl undetected in the Grampians region is again under the microscope.
Big cat enthusiast Michael Williams will be visiting the Ararat area in the next fortnight to collect local data about the fabled Grampians Puma.
Mr Williams is currently compiling information for a book about the presence of big cats in Australia.
He is also keen to meet any friends of the late John Davis who shared his recent interest in big cats.
The existence of big cats in the Grampians has been a contentious issue since as early as the 19th century.
Mr Williams said he has evidence from a newspaper report that an organised lion hunt took place in the Grampians during the 1880s. He said he has gathered documentation about numerous sightings from all over Australia dating back more than 120 years.
"The earliest scientific report of a leopard-sized cat was reported in the Northern Territory in 1883, and tabled in 1884 in the South Australian parliament," he said.
"This is listed in a CSIRO journal that lists the historical spread of cats in Australia."
Mr Williams is a firm believer that a breeding population of big cats exists in Australia.
"Our major contention is that escaped exotic big cats have been in Australia a long time," he said.
Mr Williams pointed out the findings of a Deakin University study into the Grampians region supported the claim that an animal resembling a puma is living in the area.
The Deakin Puma study found: "The two paw prints marked by David Hamilton and Wally Smith immediately after their sighting of a big cat-like animal at Rocklands Reservoir and the exact location where the animal had been sighted at the waters edge, were made by a big cat of considerable weight leaning forward.
"The big cat who made these paw prints may well have been of a similar size to that of an adult female puma."
Professor John Henry said in 2001 there was sufficient evidence from a number of intersecting sources to affirm beyond reasonable doubt the presence of a big cat population in western Victoria.
"This population of big cats most probably dates from March 1942 and had, as its original location, the Grampians mountain ranges," Professor Henry said.
Catherine Munro The Age December 8, 2004 Melbourne Zoo's public relations chief yesterday declared the silly season open as senior animal keepers were called in to analyse images of yet another mystery cat seen near the Grampians. Zoo staff take every sighting of unusual creatures seriously, just in case the fabled American puma or the Tasmanian tiger are discovered in Victoria. Legend has it that decades ago an American circus, or American airmen stationed in the bush who supposedly kept big cats as mascots, released the creatures into the wild, and that their numbers have since multiplied. This year, 38 sightings of suspected big cats have been recorded by the 50-member Australian Rare Fauna Research Association. If the rare animals did exist, the zoo keepers would like to know, said Judith Henke, the Melbourne Zoo's communications manager. Senior keeper Noel Harcourt and the keeper in charge of carnivores, Richard Roswell, examined the shaky video recording of the latest sighting taken by campers at Dunkeld - and sold to Channel Seven for an undisclosed sum. The video shows a large black cat running through open pasture and encountering a kangaroo. But it was too small, ran too fast and looked too much like a regular cat to be anything more exotic, the keepers said. And that's if you ignore the fact that the kangaroo finally appeared to hop after the cat, suggesting a degree of familiarity. "There are so many people who keep releasing cats, it's a huge problem for wildlife," Mr Roswell said. Ms Henke said such sightings were examined about three times a year by keepers. "They're patient souls," she said. Debate rages over big cat caught on camera The Courier Mail December 7, 2004 A SUSPECTED puma captured on video in the southern Grampians was a feral cat, not the exotic beast some had imagined, according to experts. Animal keepers at the Melbourne Zoo yesterday examined footage of the animal shot at Dunkeld on Saturday and concluded it was not a puma. But Andrew Burston of Mt Gambier, who shot the footage, is not convinced. "It's the hugest feral cat I've ever seen." Zoo keeper Noel Harcourt studied the footage and said the animal had too many features uncharacteristic of a puma. He said the cat's movement, pointed ears and short tail were a giveaway. "We're not cynical about this but we have to remain professional in looking at the way in which we know a cat to behave and that to me wasn't indicative of an exotic cat." "(I'm) not a hundred per cent (sure), I was surprised by its size but some cats can get to a very big size." Mr Burston filmed the animal on Saturday afternoon at a Dunkeld camp ground during a family Christmas party. He watched the animal stalk an adult kangaroo and joey before retrieving a video camera from his car and is positive it wasn't a feral cat. "I don't believe that - I've got 10 to 15 other people who were with me, I'm pretty sure (it wasn't a feral cat)." Mr Harcourt has been studying photos and film of suspected puma sightings for 15 years. The latest sighting is the second in seven months, but Mr Harcourt has yet to prove the existence of Western Victoria's mysterious big cat. "Big cats are very secretive, they wouldn't wander out into the open like this cat did and certainly if it had of seen these 10 people it would have headed off into the undergrowth."
Setting the wildcat among the pigeons By AMANDA HODGE The Australian August 12, 2000 Thousands are convinced wild pumas are roaming the bush. Amanda Hodge looks at the evidence. "YOU'RE in cat country here," retired hunter Geoff Green says ominously as he holds up what was once the leg of a sheep. Twelve months ago, the retired professional game hunter collected the freshly killed remains from the border of his property. The bones were neatly gnawed, the body incised from head to tail and the pelt licked clean of blood and flesh. This, Green knew, was not the work of a wild dog - a less discerning eater with sloppy table manners. "Dogs tend to leave wool and fur everywhere and they eat standing up," he says. "When cats kill a sheep there's no meat or wool spread anywhere. They bone them out, you know ... just leave a real neat heap like it's been skun by a man." Green, a quietly spoken local landowner, is one of a growing band of people who believe there are colonies of pumas, panthers and leopards roaming the Victorian bush. The most popular theory as to how the big cats came to be there, is that World War II US fighter pilots carried not only puma insignia on their uniforms but also live puma cubs around Australia. Other suggestions involve skint circus men, careless wildlife collectors and circus train crashes. Victorian professor of education John Henry has heard them all. As team leader of a Deakin University study 25 years ago into the existence of pumas in the Grampians, he came across more than his share of big cat believers. But that wasn't all he encountered. Over two years, many dropping specimens and plaster-cast footprints later, two finds set the environmental science students buzzing. Both the scat specimens, complete with bones, fur and fibre, and a plaster cast of a footprint were sent to a US puma specialist in Colorado. The biologist wrote back in careful language - both specimens were consistent in appearance and make-up with what you would expect to find from a puma. "It was tantalising but not conclusive in a scientific sense," says Professor Henry. More evidence was required, so he went searching for primary sources. According to the theory, US airforce pilots flying in from a defeated Singapore flew mascots to the South Australian town of Mount Gambier, where several squadrons were regrouping in early 1942. When Japan threatened Australia's north coast, they were called up and told to get rid of the big cats - which they did at Victoria Point in the Grampians. Professor Henry tracked down six of the servicemen and wrote to them. He confirmed they had served in Australia during 1942 and spent time in Mt Gambier before being dispatched to the north coast. He also confirmed that both a local US fighter squadron and US bomber squadron bore depictions of pumas on their uniform insignia. "All of that was consistent with the myth," Professor Henry says. "But when I finally took the plunge and asked them, `Did you ever bring out puma cubs as mascots?', the walls came up." A few letters, including one from a retired lieutenant-colonel, admitted not only knowledge of such stories but also that that they might be true. Still, the team could not conclusively declare the presence of pumas in the Grampians. Instead their unofficial report concluded that there was evidence of "large carnivores other than wild dogs". The Deakin report remains more conclusive than the thousands of reported sightings of exotic cats reported since the 1870s. It is certainly more convincing than the blurred video footage aired on television last week. But the report was never published. The spectre of public and peer ridicule proved too intimidating - so much so that another academic involved in the project refused to talk to The Australian about the findings or allow his name to be mentioned. The study remains a well-kept secret. In its absence, the new video footage has failed to convince officials in Victoria's Department of Natural Resources. Department spokesman Peter Menkhorst says the most logical explanation is that the black cat filmed was a feral cat. "We remain sceptical of the exotic cat theory until field evidence comes along rather than hearsay of sightings," Menkhorst says. But the witnesses are adamant, including a Victorian farmer who swears he found a three-month-old Hereford calf hanging 5m up in the fork of a tree. "People who haven't seen it are non-believers," says John McPhailand, a rabbiter from Daylesford. "I don't suffer from hallucinations. I've seen it and I know others who have too." Green is not among them. He has never sighted a big cat, but he is convinced of their existence. His neighbour has lost more than 300 sheep in recent years, all killed and skinned in the same manner. He has made plaster casts of footprints he is convinced are not those of wild dogs or feral cats. Like many other believers who have been ridiculed for speaking out, there is an element of zealotry in Green's research. In the dining room of his 140-year-old farmhouse, he produces reams of information and statements from former police officers, park rangers and farmers. Testimonials include descriptions of a "huge lioness-like animal" and a "bloody great big black cat", bigger than a sheepdog or labrador. Some are convinced that what they have seen is a thylacoleo carnifex, a tree-dwelling marsupial lion which has been extinct for 18,000 years. Green is still making up his mind. Meanwhile, the sheep bone hangs in his shed, a pointed reminder that the truth is out there.