Big Cats Victoria

Seeking The Proof

Simon Townsend Biography

I grew up in a household full of books, ideas and debate. My father was a professional scientist and encouraged my passion for natural history from an early age. From my childhood I had always been excited by the prospect of the rediscovery of the Thylacine and the possibilities of the collection and description of the Striped Marsupial-Cat of Northern Queensland as described by Ellis Troughton in his delightful Furred Animals of Australia. Our old family copy was dog eared and worn out, a long-suffering companion of my early years.

By 1970, at the age of fourteen, I was intrigued by reports of the so called Beast of Bealiba and commenced a life long obsession with collecting reports of out of place animals, especially predators. My first publication on the subject appeared in 1972 in the State Government sponsored magazine for Secondary Schools, called Pursuit. This was ‘heady stuff’, but the following year I had the good fortune to investigate a report of a so called Black Panther and actually saw such an animal. This occurred in broad daylight while in the company of two mates, at a range of about 20 meters near Warburton, Victoria. The animal was definitely a large glossy black feline. In size it was far longer and bulkier than a big dog such as an Alsatian. Apart from the fact it was trying to depart the scene in a silent and stealthy manner by adopting a sort of belly crawling skulk, it gave me the most belligerent stare I have ever experienced before or since.

simon-townsend-sThree separate things stood out for me in regard to what I had seen of that animal. The pelage or coat was a glossy black colour and I could not discern the spots that one can see so easily in a melanistic leopard in similar conditions. Its tail was very long and thick compared to that of a domestic cat and cylindrical in cross section rather than tapering. Most impressive however, were the muscles in its limbs which appeared almost sculpted and gave the impression of great power. Even after shooting dozens of feral cats in my youth, I had never seen anything which came within a bull’s roar of the appearance of the animal I saw that afternoon.

The experience of seeing an animal that the authorities denied existing compelled me to commence a long and very stimulating correspondence with the late zoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, which continued on a regular basis till he died. Apart from showing me much kindness (including patience) he was author of On the Track of Unknown Animals, probably the most significant popular work on out of place animals ever written.

My love of natural history, especially mammalogy, pushed me to spend a year working as a keeper at Melbourne Zoo in 1974. It taught me a lot about wild animals in captivity (and rather more about zoo keepers) so I grudgingly decided to embark on the academic life. After a decidedly unspectacular career as an undergraduate at La Trobe University and a variety of dead end part time jobs I joined the Commonwealth Public Service. Working for two different Federal agencies I had the good fortune to be posted to and throughout much of central and western Victoria, all of it good ‘cat’ country. At one stage I was a member of the Rare Fauna Research Society but now wing it alone. I have never looked back.

Today, in the company of stellar field workers like John Turner, Bernie Mace and Wayne Knight, and under the tutelage of such men as the late Athol Douglas of the West Australian Museum, I have managed (over the last thirty five years) to collect significant evidence of the existence of a species of big cat in Australia. This continues as a work in progress. My aim is to engineer the collection of at least one individual ‘panther’ and see it lodged as a vouchered specimen in a public collection such as the Museum of Victoria.