Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang have produced a book on the subject of big cats in the Australian context. It was a book that was waiting to be written and they have done an admirable job.
Mike and his partner, journalist Rebecca Lang, have a passion for investigating the unexplained. Their web site, www.strangenation.com.au covers many aspects of otherwise poorly investigated phenomena and makes fascinating reading. However, they have now put into print a monumental amount of material, from my point of view, in regard to unexplained predators in the entire Australian context. This has now been contained in a new 440 page volume entitled Australian Big Cats...An Unnatural History of Panthers. It covers Australia from the cold south to the steamy north, across to the far west of the nation and even investigates the New Zealand situation.
This book is the most comprehensive assembly of sightings and theories of origin of out of place big cats in Australia to date. Previous works by such notables as David O’Reilly Savage Shadow, Paul Cropper and Tony Healy Out of the Shadows, Dr John
Henry Pumas in the Grampians: A Compelling Case? and Malcolm Smith Bunyips and Bigfoots: In Search of Australia’s Mystery Animals now have a worthy successor.
It is devoted to reporting on, and trying to give evidence for, the phenomenon of unexplained big cat sightings and reportage in the Australian and New Zealand context. Divided into 14 chapters, 2 appendices and an index, it approaches such a controversial subject in a logical manner. The history of earliest reports from the 19th century till the time of going to press and theories relating to the origins of populations of such inexplicable animals are considered in some depth. The cross Tasman experience of similar reports was something I had not seriously considered before, but it now clearly is worth closer attention.
The theories of possible origins are numerous and include circus and wildlife park escapees, mutated feral cats and the survival of vanished native carnivores. Black or tan coloured big cats, Melanistic Leopards and Pumas respectively, and the existence of outsized feral cats and the possible survival of indigenous ‘extinct’ predators such as Thylacoleo, (the so called Marsupial Lion which was really a gigantic carnivorous possum) and the not very catlike Thylacine are all considered in context.
The involvement (or lack of it) by governmental agencies is effectively demonstrated. In the context of the Grose Vale NSW scenario it shows what an interested governmental agency can at least start to do. Closer to home, the FOI request that resulted in the finding that “a possibility that the Winchelsea faeces were from a big cat such as a black leopard” was of special significance to me.
My only problems with this book are in the limitations imposed by the cost of self publication. There are only a few typographical errors and a couple of mislabelled illustrations. If the photographs used as illustrations could have been reproduced in colour it would have been beneficial as would more descriptive captioning for them and the items in the appendices. The footnotes are useful but a full bibliography and a more extensive index would also have been an appropriate addition. However these are only small considerations considering the scope of the work.
All in all, Australian Big Cats…An Unnatural History of Panthers is a very welcome addition to Australian natural history writing. It makes no pretence at being ‘science’ but is certainly exhaustive and enthusiastic investigative journalism and is a substantial contribution to the sum of knowledge relating to officially unknown animals. It is to be hoped that this book will encourage witnesses of out of place big cats to come forward with their reports and help build a picture of what we are dealing with. Then and only then are we likely to be in a position for positive identification. Naturalists like myself who have laboured away for years and horded our material can take a lesson from Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang.
Australian Big Cats…An Unnatural History is self published and is available via the website www.australianbigcats.com.au for $35 plus postage.