Panther or puss? Claws out over big cat claims

By Greg Ansley

CANBERRA - The claws are out as wildlife experts again argue the truth of one of Australia’s great legends: giant cats roaming the woods of New South Wales and Victoria.

The stories have surfaced for more than a century, gaining some official backing but never providing sufficient scientific evidence to move from myth to fact.

Now a Melbourne hunter, Kurt Engel, has told ABC radio he shot dead a black puma near the East Gippsland town of Sale in June, providing photographs, a tail and samples of fur as confirmation.

Engel’s claim excited Mike Williams, the Australian representative of the British-based Centre for Fortean Zoology, specialising in cryptozoology, the study of unknown animals. Williams sent DNA from the dead animal’s tail to India for examination, and is confident it will be confirmed as that of a big cat.

But Hans Brunner, who tested the animal’s hair for Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun that it came from a moggy. He said the hairs were too long for a puma or panther, and questioned why the carcass was dumped in a river rather that kept for examination, and why it had been photographed without a person next to it to provide scale.

Stung by the suggestion his puma was instead a pussy, Engel retorted: "It must be the biggest cat in the world if that’s the case."

Such arguments have raged for decades, fuelled by sightings and theories that panthers or pumas kept as pets had been released by miners in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s and/or by American troops in World War II.

Deakin University researcher Dr John Henry, who probed sightings in the 1970s, told the ABC last year that he had concluded that it was "beyond reasonable doubt" that big cats were roaming Victoria’s Grampians region at that time.

In New South Wales, where sightings have been reported in Sydney’s west and northwest, Richmond and the Blue Mountains, the Sun-Herald two years ago uncovered a secret state government study supporting the probability of a colony of big cats. The Agriculture Department said: "Nothing found in this review conclusively proves the presence of free-ranging exotic large cats in NSW, but this cannot be discounted and seems more likely than not".

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