Rebagging the Cat.
Its time I came out and I’ll do it here now, so hold on. Ready? Am I a believer or not?
Yes I know. It’s not possible, and believers are all nutters. But there is more to this story than simply ‘they exist’, or ‘they don’t exist’.
Believing that there are big non-moggie cats wandering through the Australian bush might make me a nutter, but dare I say that there is more to sighting something that ‘shouldn’t be there’ than meets the eye, literally.
Deconstructing Australia’s big cat story takes us through some very tricky territory, not in the bush, but in the human mind. But, first you must allow me two quick stories.
Story one. A very good friend told me recently how he was walking down a shadowy alleyway between two buildings in the city when something rubbed lightly against his ankle as it ran past. Instantly looking down he saw a rat less than a metre in front of him and moving fast. It all happened in milliseconds. He blinked twice, and the rat turned into an empty disposable drink cup rolling along in a lane that doubled as a mini wind tunnel. He looked about, but there wasn’t a hole or a place on or above the cobblestones that would offer a hiding place even for a snail.
This story tells us something about perception and cognition. Something appearing to be something totally different to what it really is is not an uncommon occurrence in most people’s lives.
Story two. A very long time ago I was travelling by car between Natimuk and Balmoral, in the Victorian Western District. I had set out very early and at the point where my story begins the sun had just risen behind me, bathing everything around me in a golden red light, contrasting with the dark shadows behind small bushes and rocks. I was not travelling fast. Kangaroos were common and in those days and in that far west of the State, you could sometimes come across emus, erratic roadrunners at any time.
Ahead of me on the right, I saw movement and something told me to slow down. As I came closer, I stopped the car. A very large black feline shape was ambling along in the direction I was travelling. The animal was walking along a sheep track just below the top of a high bank marking the edge of a large erosion gully and creek. It didn’t hear my vehicle nor look back at any time, perhaps because of the brightness of the strong sunlight behind it, that would have blinded its vision.
I was very excited by what I was seeing. Only recently I had read about the numerous sightings of big cats around the Grampians region, not too far to the southeast of my location.
I quickly left the car and crossed the road and climbed through the barbed wire fence all the while keeping the animal in view. I remember cursing quietly as I caught and tore a small hole in my jacket. I was now on top of the opposite bank of the gully. The walking was easy, and I followed along, all the time trying to get a little closer without being noticed. I didn’t get much closer—around fifty to sixty metres— when the animal turned into what was a tributary of the main creek. By the time I reached the point where the animal turned, and looked up the smaller gully, the animal could no longer be seen, probably because that gully turned right only a short distance in, meaning that the beastie could have turned before I arrived where the arm joined the main creek.
Knowing that I had an early appointment and still some distance to travel, I returned to the car and went on my way excited by my sighting of a Panther.
Back to the present
The second story I related happened in 1962, fifty years ago when I was twenty-two. Meanwhile, big cat stories have never gone away and I am certain that the number of reported sightings is still less than those unreported. People don’t want to be thought of as mad or different and joining the big cat believers’ club means you risk being called a ‘nutter’.
Over the years, the people I have met who have related their big cat stories have impressed me. Everyone genuinely believed they had ‘seen something that just shouldn’t be there’.
So am I really a believer?
There is not room here to give more than a few pointers to how we can view the subject of feline species other than the estimated twelve million feral moggies – Felis catus – inhabiting our farmland, bushland and outback. There are numerous books on the subject of big cats and many very active websites. You will find the web addresses at the end of this article.
Is that the end then? No, not quite.
Its story number one that holds my attention. Remember the rat that turned out to be a disposable cup?
Enter stage left, first Oliver Sacks. Sacks who is about to turn 80, has been a practising neurologist in New York for about fifty years. He is the author of a number of important books. His classic book ‘Awakenings’ has inspired writers from Harold Pinter to Will Self and a film of the same name. (His latest book is entitled “Hallucinations’.) Sacks’ insightful case studies of patients with unusual brain disorders along with his work and writings on everyday human perceptions of reality cause one to question ones belief in what we perceive to be true and/or normal.
Then I should mention Maurice Merleau-Ponty. (‘Phenomenology of Perception’). Merleau-Ponty was an early pioneer in putting forward the concept of ‘visual illusion’.
Now add to the ‘visual illusion’ element another phenomenon that holds that once you name and/or label something publicly it tends to go ‘viral’, suddenly it’s everywhere. Now you have the potential for a tsunami of—in this case an animal (big moggies perhaps)—becoming Panthers. ‘I saw something big, black and feline. Oh! It must have been one of those Panthers’. And if it was brown, then it was a Puma.
So what do we really know? We know that objects viewed from a distance can look much bigger than expected, especially when the light is from the back. Also, the darker the animal the bigger it appears so that black is logically the biggest. Size and distance are something that I have trouble with when looking at birds in the landscape. What else? The largest known captured healthy and not overweight feral moggie weighed in at around sixteen kilograms. The one sitting waiting for its dinner at your house is probably around three to five kilograms, seven at the most (unless it is unhealthy and overweight).
So I’m not a believer after all then?
Sadly, I’m not. I love the stories, the romance and the mystery. I will never be able to resist reading stories about unknown creatures, especially those about big cat sightings. I was a believer, but over time I lost the faith. No authenticated pictures, no DNA, no critters in a cage, no panther hats or mittens, no grizzly remains. After fifty years, I’m throwing in the towel. Goodbye panthera pardus! Goodbye felis concolor!
A final thought. If you want to have fun looking for other weird and wonderful beasties, make an internet search for ‘crypto zoology’ and discover all the creatures that some people claim are haunting our land and seascapes. It’s fascinating. Be warned though, switch on your ‘crap detector’ before going in or you might just too easily become a believer.
Well, I’ve got to go and pack my tent and a sleeping bag. I’m off to the Otway Ranges in the morning. Just heard of a sighting of a Thylacine near Lavers Hill. What? They’re extinct? Don’t be silly. Tasmanian tigers have always been here. It’s just that people don’t often report seeing them. Scared of being called a nutter I suppose.
Want more mysterious animals and stuff? There are plenty of websites that can help you with this but here’s three to get you started. Be warned; you could end up like me – loopy.
Country Notebook articles are written by Richard Lee for his monthly newspaper column of the same name.