A RESEARCHER says a giant feral pig killing Colac district men in 1895 overshadowed a “big cat” panic in Gippsland.
Ballarat University’s Dr David Waldron is researching facts and folklore surrounding “black panthers” in Victoria and hopes to explain why there were no documented sightings in the Otways before the 1960s.
His research has uncovered newspaper reports and anecdotal stories of big cats killing stock and causing “panic” in Gippsland and the Grampians in the 1880s but the Otways panther legend did not hit the headlines until 1963.
“What I’ve found was that when big cat panics were going on in other parts of the state, the Otways had its own panics,” Dr Waldron said.
“In 1895 they were finding men dead who’d been working on their own, out fencing and they had been killed by a giant feral pig.
“And then in 1934 when the Gippsland panther was in the newspapers there was a serial killer who was kidnapping young men between Colac, Lorne and Geelong and taking them to abandoned farmhouses,” Dr Waldron said.
“Several men were found dead and a man was charged, which again overshadowed any panther panic elsewhere.”
Dr Waldron said he wanted to hear from Colac district people who could add to his research, particularly with sightings or stories of big cats in the Otways before the 1960s.
“I’m looking to produce a book that shifts the big cat legend from a fringe area to at least acceptance that it is a major part of Australia’s heritage, a part of our culture, particularly what has happened with introduced species; it’s quite extraordinary,” he said.
Dr Waldron said his research had emphasised the importance of not “jumping to one conclusion for every story”.
He said a story of American soldiers releasing puma “mascots” from a Nhill army base was a popular theory but people had brought many exotic animals to Australia before 1942.
“There’s nothing wrong with the mascot story, it’s absolutely plausible but whether it’s true or not is the question,” Dr Waldron said.
He said he found evidence of animals released from circuses, Australian soldiers bringing back animals as “souvenirs” and Melbourne newspapers advertising tigers and leopards for sale.
“The exotic animal trade was huge in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1850s and 1860s,” he said.
“It wasn’t until 1942 when a monkey with yellow fever was brought into Western Australia that customs started to get worried and banned bringing mascots into Australia.”
But Dr Waldron said his research had also uncovered the possibility of introduced species including feral pigs, cats and dogs, with reports of cats weighing up to 16 kilograms and a “black dingo cross” blamed for a panther scare in the 1930s.
“And what happened a few times was that guys were arrested for fabricating big cat kills to steal sheep.
“It happened a few times in 1912 and 1933, where they were copying cat kills so they could steal the rest of the flock,” he said.
“In other cases you can’t discount that some kills could be several animals working together over a night.”
But Dr Waldron said the big cat legend was “definitely driven by the loss of stock not attributable to wild dogs”.
He said he had also identified “how little we know about introduced animals” and the need for research into feral predators.
“Whether it’s big cats or feral pigs or dogs; if farmers are having a rush of kills then that’s a major issue.”
Colac district people with “Otway panther” stories can contact Dr Waldron by email at [email protected]