Thursday, 30 August 2012

Big cat hunters vindicated

Big cat believers are no longer considered 'nutters' but people worth listening to, writes Chris McLennan for the Weekly Times.

Simon Townsend has been vindicated.

His obsession with mysterious big cats is no longer considered as weird as it once was.

The Victorian Government has made big cat hunting almost mainstream.

Simon's not alone.

Hundreds of people have come forward in the past week with their own hesitant eyewitness accounts of a big cat.

Powerful animals with giant eyes shining like torches in the car headlights.

Black cats running into the bush, jaws dripping crimson from a fresh kill in a farmer's paddock.

These people have also been emboldened by the Government.

Their stories can now travel further than the safe confines of family gatherings.

There is a community-wide protection afforded to big cat tales this week that didn't exist last week.

For many decades, Simon and fellow big cat hunter John Turner had occupied a space that included UFO believers, bunyips and yowies.

"We knew we weren't crazy, perhaps a bit odd, I'm certain everyone else thought we were crazy," Simon said.

First, we should say Simon is not the Townsend of television fame, but a well-spoken retired farmer from the Geelong district, snake catcher, justice of the peace and odd-jobs man.

He was once a councillor on the Surf Coast Shire, which he laughingly admitted was no guarantee of sanity.

Forty years ago, when he was 17, he had an experience with a big cat in the Yarra Ranges that changed his life.

"I saw a black panther at close range. Other people with me saw it too. It was as real as it can get," he said.

It filled him with questions, but Simon was surprised to find little written material on Australia's mystery animals.

"There was lots about the Loch Ness monster or Abominable Snowman but nothing about Australia."

Over the years, Simon and John have done their best to set that right.

Their bigcatvictoria website is the cutting edge in research as far as the big cat mystery goes. Within two days of news breaking of the Government search, they had 4309 hits on their website, equivalent to their normal traffic over a month.

Simon was no longer a fringe dweller but an authority.

He conducted six radio and two television interviews last Wednesday alone, including one with Radio New Zealand.

Government researchers have already rifled through Simon and Paul's collection of big cat reports, pictures and frozen kill samples.

His only disappointment thus far about his newfound popularity is that Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh hadn't spoken to him personally.

"We seem to be doing a lot of the work for the Government, I am surprised it wasn't acknowledged," he said.

There are several books in the wind, including one with a Ballarat academic, and given the Government's search, sales of the book might be better than originally expected.

Despite this renewed interest in big cats, Simon hopes no-one catches one.

"It would be traumatised, it would cause all sorts of problems. No, that's not what I want at all," he said.

Simon is not certain a big cat will be run to ground.

"They've been around for more than a century and they still haven't been caught," he said.

"The reports we get are all so consistent there's no doubt at all in my mind they are still about, and all over the state.

"People see dark-coloured animals which are scared of them and run away."

Simon said that "for the moment" he was merely interested in tapping into the sudden rise of interest to collect all the eyewitness accounts people may have been too embarrassed to offer in the past.

Simon and John have a network of big cat watchers all around the state.

He admits their own days of hiding out in the bush covered against the elements in a rain-proof poncho hoping for a big cat sighting are in a more athletic past. They prefer to be called out now after a mauling or a fresh kill.

With modern scientific analysis, Simon believes the DNA evidence would be more important than a blurry picture or indistinct video.

"Even if we find one or two there's still going to be lots more that are never going to be found," he said.

"The search for the big cats will go on for another hundred years. With the right attitude we might be able to answer a few questions right now but no way are we going to be able to answer them all."

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