Australia's "panther"

Norman Lindsay is contagious...

True story


I was walking home down the Princes Highway to our place in Batemans Bay, years ago. It was late at night, I was the only person around. It was a clear, cool night, and my main subject for thought was that it was bit too cool.

Walking past the local restaurant and passing an adjoining group of small shops, called the Lobster Pot Plaza, I saw a black cat looking into a garbage bin, about 5 metres or a little less away.

What interested me was that the garbage bin was raised, its top about waist high, no less than a metre off the ground and the cat had its head inside the bin, resting on  its forelegs…..with its back legs on the ground. The next thing I noticed was that the legs were outsize. They belonged on a wallaby. The thing was the size of a small border collie, in length, but not as solidly built.

The cat raised its head out of the bin and looked at me. That was a further revelation. The rest of the cat was also large, but of pretty much normal relative dimensions for a cat. No markings at all. Pure black. 

If there was one thing not bothering that cat, it was me. “Ah, a human, how quaint” would be about the gist of its reaction.  Pretty good judgment, too. If you know how ferocious normal feral cats are, think about what a big one would be capable of, if put on the spot. I certainly wasn’t about to try and tackle him.

My reaction was confined to “???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and I stand by it. This exchange of brief acknowledgements concluded I stared for a while, went home, the cat remaining to complete its investigations.

Since then I have tried to figure out this scenario. Since it was now about 25 years ago, and I’m still thinking about it, you might gather that it made an impression. So, here’s the result of all this thinking:

  1. It was definitely not a “panther”, or a marsupial predator. It was a normal cat, except for size, and the outsize back legs. Pure Felis. NOT Panthera. Head is all domestic cat, same jaws. The general impression was of an overgrown Siamese.
  2. It was in extremely good condition for a feral cat. No scars, no mange, whatever it had been doing hadn’t done it any harm.
  3. The area was infested with dogs, domestic and wild. There were at least two dogs ten metres away. None of the local dogs were making a sound. The cat had come right into town undetected.
  4. From its size I would say other, normal, feral cats would give it a wide berth. Too big to handle.
  5. It was strangely slimline, not cheetah-like, but very agile looking, almost delicate, except for the hind legs. Admittedly the contrast between the front and back may have made it seem more “slim” than it was.
  6. It seemed to be very alert when it got its head out of the bin. If it hadn’t been scrounging in the bin, it probably would have been aware of me coming, and I would never have seen it.
  7. It wasn’t at all bothered by my presence, though, when it did see me. It seemed very confident, unlike most feral animals, which panic at the sight of a human.
  8. I got the impression that the scrounging was a part of the routine. If so, it had been coming into a fairly large town regularly, undetected, and doing quite well. Risk taking is an art for animals, and they generally don’t  run gauntlets on a regular basis.

What, you may ask, have I been doing with this information?

I’ve been checking references. There is no record of any cat with enlarged hind legs, anywhere on Earth. The morphology supposedly doesn’t exist, in any feline species. Secondly, Felis is Felis. Most Felis are not large cats, and don’t need to be large for their prey range.

This cat, however, has some logic about it. The big hind legs suggest a lot of pouncing has been done by its ancestors. Pouncing is the technique for hunting rodents. The ability to perform a sort of super-pounce, therefore, indicates a great advantage in range and power of movement. A very efficient rodent catcher. It also indicates the capability of a burst of high speed, useful for close range hunting and dodging predators like dogs.

I doubt if anything big enough to tackle it would be able to catch it, anyway. From its slimline build I think it would be able to use undergrowth very effectively for cover and stalking. I assume the cat was full grown. From the lack of damage, I would think it was a young adult.

A good name for it would be Felis Elegans Australis. (Elegant Australian Cat). Obviously it has a role in the local environment. It probably lives on rabbits, rats, and other high volume prey. A cat of that size would require a lot more protein. It’s a hilly area, there, lots of cover, and there would be a lot of good nesting sites for raising litters in relative security. Fauna is fairly diverse, and there’s a healthy supply of bush rats and rabbits. As an animal, everything about it makes sense.

There are now some questions that have to be asked:

1.     Is this the “panther” people have been seeing?

2.     Has anybody else encountered one?

3.     It’s a big enough animal; why is it so hard to find in modern Australia?

4.     For this thing to exist at all, it has to have evolved in Australia. That means in 300 or so years, which is supposedly impossible in higher mammals. Any answers?

What we are supposed to do with a super cat I don’t know. I do know, however, that this is probably a new species. On that basis it deserves some attention. Now that we seem to getting back to a bit of sanity on the subject of cats, it might be possible to make some objective appraisal.

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Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

A lovely and interesting story. I so enjoyed it. Thank you.

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