I was a country boy, raised in rural central Victoria and grew up fishing in the river for cod and redfin or chasing rabbits and foxes. These outdoor activities were normal and expected pastimes. The advent of "Scouts" and then camping and learning bushcraft helped me understand the ways of the natural world and how animals and man interacted in real life.
Hunting became a serious interest for me as a maturing teenager during the late 1960s. I therefore took advantage of the opportunity to go New Zealand and spend some time with a professional deer hunter learning his exacting trade from the bottom up. I was part of a boots, pack and rifle outfit and that major life experience was in the days well before the advent of helicopters and quad bikes - now the universal cullers' tools.
My appreciation of the out-of-doors lifestyle and wild places continued to grow with only the interruption of the Vietnam War and my luck in the ballot. By late 1970, I had been back from military service in Vietnam for about six months. At this time I occasionally went spotlight shooting for rabbits with my father.
One night, near Whitfield in north eastern Victoria, my dad was driving and I was on the back tray of the vehicle with my telescopic sighted .22 rifle and spotlight. We had just rounded a bend in the track when he said to me in low tones,
"Fox eye shine, just through the fence, right side."
Swinging the spotlight around I peered through the scope on my old BRNO rifle.
The image was not of a fox but of a huge black cat, at least the size of a labrador dog, eating from a dead sheep some fifty meters from me in the paddock. As I watched, it looked up and into the light beam for about sixty seconds then, almost casually, walked off into the nearby bush. Thirty eight years later that vivid image is still etched in my mind.
My second close encounter with a "panther" took place in the late 1990s - I was making my way towards a favourite trout stream along the bushline at first light. Quite unexpectedly, I noted a jet black, leopard-sized cat. It was sitting on its haunches on a pile of logs watching a nearby mob of grey kangaroos feeding. The 'cat' was so intent on the roos that I managed to stalk within ten meters range before it became aware of me. Alarmed, it bounded off, scattering the mob of kangaroos.
I had only been 'armed' with a light trout rod in this encounter and was therefore wholly undergunned for what had occurred. The mystery of our unknown predators might have otherwise been solved.
Twenty five years ago, when I moved my building business to coastal Victoria, my interest in 'big cats' in Australia continued and I teamed up with Simon Townsend, another investigator of the phenomenon. Together we have developed a large network of farming and town folk who have assisted us in gathering reports.
I continue to document sighting reports and investigate stock killing throughout the south western region of Victoria (and contiguous areas) and have personally recorded about one hundred and eighty reports from the Otway region alone.
In recent years I retired from the building industry and have been able to spend more time in a productive manner. I now concentrate on collecting data relating to stock and wildlife kills, an area of special interest to me. My capacity as a bushman and tracker, coupled with my easy rapport with country people and witnesses generally, has given me unique opportunities to garner information about our unidentified predators. The availability of sophisticated technologies including night vision equipment, infrared motion sensor cameras and highly sensitive sound recording systems all now combine towards helping me achieve my aim.
It is my intention to secure a specimen of our 'panther' for positive identification and I whole heartedly believe that the mystery of this unidentified predator species in Australia can be solved by the application of good will, hard work and practical technology.
John has now retired and has moved from the coast back to N.E. Vic. He will still be monitoring the site and responding to local sightings.
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.
Three 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.