Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Neil Arnold interviews Australian Big Cats authors

Neil Arnold interviews Rebecca and Mike about their ABC book, Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers.

1) Firstly, thanks for agreeing to the interview...the new book is fantastic and I must ask, in the book you put forward theories that the exotic cats in Australia may have been introduced by mascots or escaped from circuses, but one thing rarely mentioned in the book are exotic cats as pets. In the UK in the 1960s large cats were purchased in abundance, mainly as cubs. Was this situation not echoed in Australia or was the country not as swingin' in the '60s as it was here?
No, chiefly due to our very restrictive quarantine laws. Although the country was "swinging" it was certainly not swinging with large exotic cats as pets. The over-riding fear has always been that anything exotic can escape and never be found in the bush here as the areas are just too dense and rough...and dangerous.

2) You have accumulated some startling evidence in the book; why do you think the authorities continue to ignore the evidence?
Just standard lethargic public servants. I am not sure what it’s like in the UK, but if you cannot make it in the private sector here, you gravitate to the public sector.Most of the authorities here are completely clueless about any form of evidence; they change jobs all the time, go to a lot of meetings, send memos and basically cover their own arses.We have had staff from the NSW Department of Primary Industries asking us about DNA testing labs. We have sent the depts emails asking specific questions.

Around one year later on average we will get an email that doesn’t answer the questions and segues into idiocy and false statements. We will correct all the points and return the email. Around 6 months later we will receive another email from someone else telling us that since our first email was answered the case is closed. One govt department's investigations into data manipulation involved them contacting the actual guy in the department whom we had complained about. They asked him if his department had done anything "dodgy" and he said no. End of the "investigation". After three emails you become a "vexatious complainant" and then your emails just go into some in box in Alaska.

3) If a child is attacked, and possibly killed by a large cat in Australia, what do you think will come of such an incident?
At this stage of the "game", they would require a video of the attack or else they would pin the blame on dogs. Sarcasm aside, they don’t accept either secondary evidence, or primary evidence. They never investigated the lioness shot dead in the bush in western NSW in 1985 – the elusive and much sought after ‘body on the table’, so to speak.

4) You mentioned Golden Cats in the book, although these were rarely kept as pets, or in circuses, and yet there are hardly any mentions of lynx or bobcat in the book. Have there not been any reports of such animals?
We were interested in the golden cat because of the crazy idea that some of these animals might have come across with early Indonesian traders who have been visiting the northern tips of Australia for possibly thousands of years. We were speculating that these animals could have crossed with early Felis catus lines – escapees from Dutch shipwrecks.The only ‘minor’ problem with those theories was the lack of evidence! We also speculated about hybrid vigour/adaption etc, which might have lead to larger animals and could explain the colour variations seen here. We have had reports of bobcat-type animals but they appear to be describing a short-tailed and muscular Felis catus.

5) Do you believe witnesses are definitely seeing jet-black cats, or simply not taking note of the rosette pattern which a melanistic leopard produces in its pelage ?
Jet black for sure, but the lack of rosette reports has always been troubling.

6) There are mentions in the UK, Australia and US of black pumas, even though a melanistic puma would appear black dorsally and have a dirty cream/pale underside (melanistic pumas would not be uniformly black all over). Do you believe melanistic pumas exist in Australia or anywhere?
We would love to believe that a melanistic form of puma exists as it would help us explain a lot of reports, but there is still zero evidence for their existence.

7) Do you believe animals could escape a zoo or circus and live in the wilds of Australia? I ask this because usually an animal kept in captivity would be tracked down and either shot or caught.
Yes we do believe animals could easily live largely undetected in the wild here. You are right about the zoo or circus to a degree, but private collections would be another matter entirely. However, if an animal was released from a private collection or was lost/escaped, all the owners have to do is report that the animal has died and been buried/disposed of. No one from any department comes and physically checks that this is true – and that’s AFTER the laws were tightened. In our book we recount the recent example of a pygmy hippo that appeared to have been living quite well as an ‘escapee’ from a private collection in the Northern Territory. Pygmy hippos are not renowned for their stealth, so if a large water-loving mammal can live happily undetected in the Australian bush, why not an exotic cat?

8) It's interesting that in Australia there are some truly monstrous feral cats - how do you think these have come about ?
Another unknown...we’re not sure why ‘just’ the environment here would force this issue. Why not elsewhere? Cats are incredibly adaptable predators that thrive in all kinds of conditions. Not many people realise that cats can survive for long periods without water, subsisting on the liquids (blood) they get from their prey. While Australia may seem quite an inhospitable environment for a cat, quite the opposite is true. We would love to see the nuclear DNA sequence one day to see if there is anything odd in the male line, such as a golden cat.

9) Do you think the overly large feral cats explain most black leopard sightings even though whatever its size, a feral cat doesn't resemble a black leopard.
They could certainly explain some of them, especially at a distance when dealing with looking up or down a slope, but about three video sequences filmed in the last 20 years clearly show animals that do not conform to Felis catus morphology. The rest of the videos often show an animal that looks cheetah-like in shape, with a small head, often having pointed ears, which would seemingly rule out anything from the Panthera genus.

10) Have there been any reports of screaming cats, a noise which a puma would make?
Yes, especially from Western Australia and central Victoria. However, just to muddy the waters further, these sounds are often heard on farms where black cats are being seen.

11) In the book there aren't many mentions of animals with cubs - do you receive many reports of animals with cubs?
Very few.

12) How far do you think sightings go back in the history of Australia concerning large, exotic cats?
Around the middle of the 1880s, which is roughly the time the first circus menageries started touring the country.

13) Do you believe inadequate research the world over is hindering the situation and relegating it to folklore ?
Yes and no. Inadequate due to lack of time and money, for sure... The research needs more tangibles like DNA, primary and secondary evidence - like the recent successful hair and DNA analysis that identified Leopard hair from the Huddisford Woods in the UK. It’s unfortunate that too often many of these sightings become a part of folklore despite their basis in fact.

14) It seems highly unlikely in my opinion that Thylacoleo carnifex still roams the Australian bush. Do you believe it still exists and if not, what are people seeing?
Yes, we agree that it is highly unlikely – it’s highly improbable. But having said that, it’s still possible. If it does not exist, then we cannot explain the large six-toed prints (and we are aware of polydactlyl Felis catus) or the witness descriptions of animals that have a box-like ‘possum’ head of the marsupial lion. Researcher Steve Temby filmed several sequences of animals in roughly one location over several months, and claims to have caught a Thylacoleo on film in one sequence. His footage was taken over several hundreds metres away from the animal with a normal low resolution video camera. He was adamant that through his high-powered binoculars he could see that the animal had a huge boxy head, unusual prominent canines and thick, strange legs. Yet the video shows what looks like a large cat moving around. Steve Temby also stated the gait of the animal was very odd. If Thylacoleo is still roaming Australia, we cannot explain the lack of "modern" Aboriginal art, Aboriginal folklore or even early settlers’ reports. The whole thing is very messy and very strange.

15) Lions would often seek a pride and large prey. Do you believe witnesses genuinely report lions in Australia or are they mistaking a puma for a lioness?
We have had very few lion-type reports (lion vocalisations come in sometimes). And yes, witnesses could confuse a puma for a lioness. Lions are a much more social animal and generally don’t care about being seen – a behaviour that proved costly for the Broken Hill lioness, which was spotted and shot by the side of the road.

16) Have you had any personal sightings of a large cat?
I (Mike) watched an animal through a starlight scope that moved with the speed of a cheetah, with a similar body shape and the fluidity of a large cat. Rebecca observed a black fox moving across a paddock, which she initially thought might have been a cat.

17) What's been your most intriguing investigation?
Probably the "Emmaville Panther", where we tracked down the skin of the animal shot by Charlie Leader, which we discuss in the book. We really thought we would crack that one with the DNA. The formaldehyde used to preserve the skin killed that Sherlock Holmes moment for us.

18) What other mystery animals roam Australia?
There’s a steady stream of big cat, Thylacine and yowie reports always coming in. Bunyip reports have virtually dried up – it’s likely the animals responsible for these sightings were seals.

19) What are your opinions on the yowie?
We think the odds of any ’undiscovered’ giant bipedal beast like the yowie/sasquatch/yeti sharing the same rough morphology and appearing on almost every continent a bit hard to fathom. We think it’s unlikely the ‘manimal’ is flesh-and-blood, but that’s largely based on the Australian experience. Just what it is we don’t know. We have interviewed numerous witnesses, lived in a yowie ‘hot spot’ and written about the phenomena for Fortean Times. We find the whole subject very interesting.

20) I have on record a handful of stories pertaining to phantom black dogs, or hellhounds, from Australia. Do you believe these legends can also melt into the 'big cat' situation?

21) What other felidae are reported in Australia ?
Other than what we have chatted about, there are very few reports that don’t fit into any of these pigeon holes.

22) Have hair samples, faeces etc, been analysed by authorities and proven to belong to an exotic cat?
No, but then again they rarely if at all engage in such analysis.

23) For every genuine report you receive, how many crazy people contact you?
For every 50 reports we will get one weirdo. We’ve been stalked, harassed on the telephone and been the victims of character assassination. It’s not easy being sane and interested in mystery animals.

24) Do you believe the thylacine still exists?

25) If authorities the world over admitted that large cats exist in places they shouldn't, what effect do you believe this will have on the eco-system, if such animals become a recognised species?
I think the animals exist in places they should not and damage those eco-systems regardless whether authorities recognise this problem. If they are recognised here (I cannot talk for anywhere else) then nothing will change. The media would trumpet ‘Big cats exist!’ Everyone would say "I always knew it" and change the channel to sport.

26) If the authorities admit to such animals being out there, do you believe they'll have to attempt to exterminate every cat?
Here? It would be impossible. Whatever the animals are, they do not go to trees if dogs chase them – in fact, the dogs are normally running the other way. The terrain is too thick and wild for tracking by humans and we do not have trained dogs here. Australian authorities simply don’t have the resources to deal with big cats – we lack general expertise. Add to that these cat-like animals don’t eat baits and don’t step into cages or traps and seem to have a canny sixth sense when it comes to infrared devices on cameras.

27) Do you know of anyone at the present who legally owns a large cat in Australia?
28) Any plans for another 'big cat' book, or possibly a book on other Australian mystery animals ?
We’re presently working on re-issuing a big cat classic with a new foreword. We also have a few other mystery animal book ideas in the pipeline.

29) Do you believe that the witnesses who came forward in the book to say they'd been attacked by a large cat, were genuine ?
Genuine, yes; attacked by a big cat, no. They just don’t have the kind of injuries meted out by large exotic cats. Swipes from leopards, lions, tigers, jaguars and the like would leave the injured party with shredded flesh hanging from their arms, not superficial cuts and bruises.

30) What does the future hold for the 'big cats' in Australia?
Hopefully a body on the table – indisputable proof of the big cat in Australia. Thanks for taking the time to write these questions and for the ripper review!

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