Tracks of the Big Cat

by Philip Peters

On the 29th of February,1997 the Macarthur Chronicle published a collection of local big cat sightings going back many years. In a recent case it was reported that a young teenaged girl named Emilly was chased by a panther [1] while riding her horse at the Sugarloaf Horse Centre [2], a place I know well. Throughout this article, I will refer to “panthers” as the original articles did, even though it is not a correct term.

The Sugarloaf Horse Centre is a 220 hectare (approximately 600 acre) heritage listed property on the outer fringe of Sydney. It contains a fresh water canal servicing Prospect reservoir and the ambitiously named Mt. Sugarloaf. The riding centre is one of the oldest continually operating farms in the district, in use since about 1835. It has been spared from the encroachment of the urban sprawl due to a large supply of natural gas and a rich coal seam being mined via Appin.

Could a big cat live here? There would be no shortage of food or fresh water. The land is rich with hares and rabbits, some wallabies, almost a hundred delicious horses, and a steady flow of tender young riders visiting every week. With shady streams, thick scrub, and a small forest of native trees you could imagine that a panther would be hard to find if it didn’t want to be found. In theory, they could hide in the undergrowth or up in trees and would only need to come out at night to hunt. In practice however, as quiet and stealthy as they are, they are not invisible, nor are they obsessively shy. When resting in trees, their long drooping tails would tend to give them away, assuming the spindly eucalypt limbs don’t snap under their weight. Few trees here look strong enough to support a 60kg feline. These are not ideal conditions.

Curiously, all the big cats reported in the newspaper that day were described as panthers. When talking about mysterious big cat sightings, the panthers are black. A ‘black panther’ is actually a melanistic leopard (less commonly a jaguar) which has black fur obscuring its spots. It is possible for a ‘black panther’ to be on the loose but sooner or later it will die and the sightings will end unless a breeding colony can be established. The articles recounted sightings that span almost thirty years, but leopards rarely live over twenty, so it could not have been one anomalous creature. There were also cubs reported in one sighting in Appin, but more on that later. If all these stories are true, there must have been more than one panther.

Here is the first problem. The dark colour is caused by a recessive gene. When ‘black panthers’ reproduce, most of their offspring will not look black, but there were no reports of the spotted variety. A colony of panthers would also need to eat a lot of fresh meat, more than the native wildlife at Mt Sugarloaf could provide. People would notice if their horses started disappearing next. Local farmers already take matters into their own hands when they have stock losses, but it is nothing compared to what would be required to support a colony. The ‘black panthers’ cannot be leopards as we know them. They must be something else.

Emilly reported seeing the panther several times after her initial fright and mentioned that her friend Karrine saw it too. If the creature visits often, you would think somebody else might have noticed over the years. I asked some of the locals and nobody admitted to seeing a panther, but they were aware of another creature that might fit the bill. This creature has managed to breed and a small colony has sprung up around her. She’s a wallaby. Wallabies could be confused with big cats in some circumstances, but if we must rule out misidentification, then we have a problem. There is only one creature that fits the description, yet leaves no trace. Based on the eyewitness testimony and the lack of material evidence, it could only be a faery-cat.

Faeries notoriously defy classification. They chose to appear in any form, usually when people are tired or preconditioned and are usually mistaken for ghosts (which is just silly. Everybody knows ghosts don’t exist). While faeries may appear as anything, the glamour is only an imitation of the real thing. Something usually betrays their true nature. A faery could appear too small, too large, or appear dressed in clothes long out of style. A faery disguised as an animal might also be flawed in scale. This could explain why big cat footage typically involves out of focus felines that move like domestic cats in spite of breathless commentaries that they huge! This would also explain the lack of stock losses, lack of highly pungent leopard droppings, and any skeletal leopard remains.

If Campbelltown sounds familiar, it should. It is internationally famous, not for the high cost of real estate (wrong city), or the fine single malts (wrong country), but for the legend of Fisher’s Ghost. In brief, the ghost of Fred Fisher was reportedly seen pointing towards where his body lay which led to the conviction of his murderer. A sceptic might say a witness wanted to draw the police into an investigation without implicating himself, but there is another possibility.

Perhaps it was the same faery who after helping to bring a man to justice in the clever form of a ghost is now bearing its claws to protest the encroachment of new suburbs springing up all around Campbelltown. Faeries can be capricious, benign, and even at times playful, but should never be underestimated. As creatures without material form, there can never be empirical evidence for their existence. By extension, nothing we can do will stop them, short of a lack of imagination and a refusal to admit they exist at all. Something you can mention to your kids when you put them to bed on a dark stormy night.

The faery faith is not as popular as it once was, but it is no less credible than an interventionist God who is all powerful and all loving. If millions of people can believe that logical inconsistency, why not faeries? To be fair, not all religions fall into this pattern of belief. A classical pagan sees no problem with gods who are indifferent to the sufferings of mortals (as espoused by Epicurus). It fits the way things seem to work in life. Likewise the Satanists may have a point with a deity that is not obligated to act out of love (see Anton LaVey). Gods can have power, or love, but if they had both, the world would be a very different place. Faeries make more sense, relatively. It would not be contrary to their nature if they have been causing pranks ever since the first man wondered where he lost his marbles. How would we prove they don’t? The prankster faery-cat hypothesis is also more plausible than a panther that eats nothing, leave no trace and has selective invisibility.

Could it be that Emilly’s horse was startled by something other than a faery-cat or a panther? There are only two things that startle a horse. Things that move and things that don’t. If a horse does bolt, all you can do is hold on tight with your knees and try to reign it away from disaster. That invariably involves looking at where you want the horse to go, and not looking backwards! Anything could cause a horse to run for its life.

Would the staff at the riding centre admit the existence of a panther on their property? Perhaps parents would stop bringing their little kids out for trail rides if they thought they might turn up as cat chow. If you look at the warning signs at the centre, it is obvious that nobody is concerned about intimidating young riders. Three large signs warn that riding is a dangerous activity and urge everybody to be insured. Helmets are compulsory. All members of staff carry first aid kits and remain in radio contact when out and about. If anything, they would rather parents were more concerned for safety than try to downplay the risks.

But are there really predators in the area? Most certainly. The difference is, other predators leave behind clues to their existence. To give one example, calves and kids (of the goat variety) were being eaten on a nearby property. To a trained eye, it was clearly the work of dogs. They could be seen, left tracks, killed to eat, and one eventually fell under the sights of a rifle. It is now an ex-dog.

We should not dismiss the notion of a panther on the lose just because most people cannot see it. One of the rangers at the nearby Mt Annan botanical gardens told me there were thousands of rabbits on the site. I’ve only seen one, but unlike the panther, these pests leave behind clues to their existence with their droppings and the damage caused to the environment. They are also suckers for traps. It is a wonder no panther has been found dead with a poisoned rabbit in its belly.

There was another story of a panther with cubs out at nearby Appin which was even more dramatic than Emilly’s encounter. Reportedly, back in 1980, chickens at the Inghams chicken farm [3] were being eaten by a “panther-like creature” with cubs. Two of the staff caught the creature and drowned it in a water drum, burying it on the property. Officially, Inghams declined to comment on whether their staff killed a wild animal 28 years ago and how long Chuck Norris and Mr T. (aka Mario and Paul) were on the payroll.

It is possible for a big cat to wander across the rolling hills from Appin, chase Emilly on her horse, then leave, but remember that she spotted it several times since. If I was chased by a panther, then noticed it eyeing me afterwards, I’d be far less composed. Perhaps she knows that it’s only sick panthers that attack humans. If a leopard population has been bred by somebody for the black colouring, there is a potential risk. Inbreeding for this trait makes the cats susceptible to genetic flaws and has an adverse affect on their temperament. A sickly, aggressive leopard could become a latter day Beast of Gévaudan [4] but luckily for us locals, this beast lacks any appetite at all.

Everybody loves a mystery, but when people claim potentially dangerous creatures are on the loose, we should try to solve the mystery one way or another. Appeals based on fear should be substantiated or they become idle scare mongering. As appealing as this would be for newspaper sales, shouldn’t they have loftier aspirations to inform and bind communities? If an exotic big cat is living near Campbelltown then it needs to be identified and removed as a matter of scientific curiosity and perhaps public safety. In light of the balance of evidence however, I will continue riding at Mt Sugarloaf unarmed. It sounds like a faery tale to me.