|Saturday, 2017-04-29, 6:22 PM
More on NZ Big Cats
Do Pumas and Black Panthers really roam our Countryside Researched and written by Ian Lucas
Making national headlines would have been the last thing on the mind of truck driver Chad Stewart when he stopped to drop off stock at the Gallagher’s Canterbury property at Mayfield on Oct 3rd 2003. His attention was drawn to a large black animal sitting near the sheep yards. Puzzled, he sat and observed it for a few minutes before it eventually arose and ran up the hill behind, displaying an unusually long tail as it bounded off.
He realized then that this was no ordinary farm dog, but what to his amazement, looked just like a black panther!
Once Mr Stewart’s initial shock wore off, he may have recalled a couple of other high profile sightings that had been reported over recent years. Little would he have known however, that these incidents were just the latest in a string of similar sightings which research has uncovered, span back at least four decades.
What follows is a complete overview of alien (as in foreign) big cat sightings in NZ and abroad. This is a fascinating story that deserves to be told to a largely uninformed public. Several of the following sightings are being reported for the first time and where requested, witnesses’ names have been omitted.
It was January 1962, and after a long and hot day’s work, an orchard worker in the Cromwell Gorge area decided to go out and enjoy the summers evening exploring the nearby countryside in an area since flooded by the Clyde Dam. As he approached a derelict miner’s cottage at the base of a barren hillside, he observed not far up the hill a fawn coloured, cat-like animal that he immediately identified as a puma. Upon being disturbed, the mystery feline quickly scampered off and was lost among the rocks.
The Canterbury, Otago areas seem to be a hotspot for NZ sightings. A young couple was out rabbit shooting in the back hills of Bendigo .As one of the pair remained lookout atop a large rock, her partner worked the valley below. Suddenly something large and black shot out from the bushes below. It ran low and fast, had a noticeably long tail and was large enough to send the young lady nervously running to join her friend. The year was 1973.
Newspapers and the public had a field day, when in July of 1977 they refused to take seriously the report of ‘Tiger Lady’ Mrs F Clark who claimed to have seen a tiger in the street outside her suburban Kaiapoi home in the early hours of the morning. Critics were silenced however when large pug marks and droppings were found on nearby Pines Beach. Both these were described as being consistent with those of a lion or tiger according to an Orana Park administrator. The (Christchurch) Press followed the story over several issues. A report quotes Mrs Clark as saying ‘I couldn’t make out its stripes but it was a fairish color and had a long tail.’ A farmer also reported seeing the creature some four days later.
The South Island mystery cats seemed to go in to hiding as it was not until1989 that a further sighting was reported. Two young men were driving late at night near Waitahura when they saw the distinct shape of a very large cat silhouetted in the car headlights. Also around that time a gentleman travelling during daytime on the road between Middlemarch and Hyde saw a large cat-like animal cross the road further down the straight ahead.. He described it as being the size of a sheepdog but with a cat’s outline and gait. Although he stopped by the pile of wood cuttings the creature had disappeared in to, he was weary about approaching for a closer inspection.
Dunedin Police were in for a surprise when on Christmas day, 1995, a couple called in to report an encounter with a strange animal. They had been travelling the Pigroot, State Highway 25 during the very early hours of the morning, when they saw a large black animal with a thick, bushy tail cross the road in front of them. The creature stood about 1 metre tall and looked like a cross between a leopard and a panther.
Head South some 30kms from Invercargill on the road to bluff and you will come to the turn off that leads to the country settlement of Maui. It was here in 1996 that Christopher and an acquaintance made the first of two sightings in this location. It was a brief, night-time encounter, the beam of their torch reflecting in a pair of large, green eyes, staring intently from a large, dark body. The mystery creature slowly lowered its head behind the bank it had been standing on. Spooked, the witnesses quickly got back in to their vehicle and left. It was to be a further 6 years before Christopher was to meet up with that strange animal again. You can read about that and some of the other encounters by visiting the website www.mysteriousnewzealand.com/.
Meanwhile, back to 1996 and further North, school teacher Marianne Daines was out mountain biking in the Twizel district when she spotted what she initially thought to be a black Labrador dog. She realized her misidentification as soon as the animal ran off with a feline gait and she was able to see its shape more clearly
Invercargill man Jim Walton got the surprise of his life as he peered through his binoculars, scanning the hillsides of the Dunstan ranges. For nearly half an hour one day in August of 1998, he watched a large mustard colored cat that, once again, was described as being larger than a Labrador dog. After moving around the slopes of an opposing gorge, the large cat finally lay down to rest on an exposed rock
English tourists Craig and Deborah Greening were astonished to see a ‘black panther’ while traveling through McKenzie country towards Queenstown from Omarama in July of 1999.Curiosity encouraged them to photograph the animal as is stood on its haunches, attempting to navigate its way through a wire fence. Its size was about that of an Alsatian dog. The Greening’s intriguing photo graced the pages of the country’s press over several days.
Later that same year, Canadian couple Professor Terry Chattington and his wife were concerned to see what they believed to be a mountain lion standing on boulders above Moeraki, south of Oamaru. Being North Americans, both were familiar with this species and discounted opinions that what they had seen was a holidaymakers golden retriever. Having encountered disbelief at a nearby establishment, they later reported the incident to DOC at Te Anau. Their initial response to seeing the animal had led them to believe there must have been a zoo nearby.
The trifecta for 1999 was struck when late in the year a sighting was reportedly made by a pest destruction officer on Banks Peninsula.Since then similar South Island sightings have been reported at Winterslow, Bushside, Rangitata River (Canterbury), Fairton and Roxburgh.
During Sept. 2003, Peter & Toni May were driving along Hakatere Potts Rd not far from Mount Somers. It was early afternoon and a sunny day when they spotted a large animal the size of a Labrador standing beside the road ahead. Upon being disturbed it bounded in to roadside scrub, its long round tail and strong hind quarters drawing their attention.
Glenroy resident Dave Cawley encountered a large black animal in a horse shed on his property around 2000 and again three years later. He was certain it wasn’t a feral cat. Mr Cawley’s story was reported in the Christchurch Press on Oct 10th 2003
MAF have taken some of these sightings seriously and conducted field searches on several occasions yet they have still to come up with concrete evidence to suggest large feline predators are stalking the countryside. Undoubtedly, some people may have mistaken large feral cats for panthers or pumas. Parts of the country are infested with these pests which can grow to an excessive size. An October 2003 issue of The Otago Daily Times shows a photograph of Bendigo Station gamekeeper Steve Brown holding up two such cats that he had shot. One is a seven kilogram whopper yet Mr Brown also states he has seen an even bigger cat. He first thought it was a deer running across the paddocks but it had a tail and was a cat like a big black panther!
Last year a Rotorua possum trapper snared a huge feral cat in one of his traps at Lake Okataina. It was extremely aggressive as he approached and had to be dispatched with a well aimed shot. The cat turned out to be bigger than the trapper’s dog.
Big cat fever struck again in May 2005 when Timaru man Mark Brosnahan observed and photographed a black feline near Lake Clearwater. Mr Brosnahan noticed the animal approaching up a valley. The cat heard him and dropped to the ground in the long grass, watching as the witness snapped off a couple of photos. Unfortunately, with no objects against which to measure size, the photo must be considered as inconclusive.
Before discussing several North Island reports, readers need to be informed that this is not just a NZ issue, but one which is truly global. Hundreds, if not thousands of similar reports have been made in the British Isles over several decades. These continue to this day. Older readers may remember the Beast of Bodmin Moor, the Surrey Puma, the Exmoor and Basingstoke Beasts. In Ireland an elusive large cat or cats is still being hunted as sheep continue to be mauled or killed.
A search of the internet will disclose many websites dedicated to the big cat mystery. Just search cryptozoology or Alien Big Cats, (ABCs for short) a term that has been coined to describe our elusive quarry. The reader will discover the mystery prevails throughout mainland Europe, with reports emanating from Sweden, France, Germany and other localities. North and Central America also share the excitement with reports coming in from areas not inhabited by the native pumas / cougars.
Even the island of Hawaii is not exempt. A rash of sightings in 2003 led to the visit of an employee of The Arizona Game and Fish Dept. in an effort to trap the animal. Needless to say he was unsuccessful.
In Australia ABC sightings are confined mainly to the lower half of the continent. There are hot spots of activity in Victoria, South Australia, NSW, The Blue Mountains, the Grampians and even Tasmania. Veteran Aussie investigator Rex Gilroy has detailed many hundreds of sightings over a lifetime of investigating unusual phenomena .Combined with other researchers, sightings continue and tally in the thousands. An Australian Freedom of Information request two years ago uncovered a secret government study that supported the possibility of a colony of big cats, something that had always been publicly denied.
Theories abound as to the origins of these elusive intruders. Escaped zoo animals, released illegal pets, mascots liberated by American troops during WW2. Undoubtedly some of the global sightings could be attributed to any of these factors. There is another possibility that also needs consideration. The big cats are just one variety of several unexplained creatures that are reported globally. Well known varieties include Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, yeti, Elma, mawas, etc depending on country . Then there are the lake, fiord and river monsters ( aka Nessie ), of Scotland, Scandinavia, Canada and Africa and several other countries. Could there be a paranormal factor? Is there a common denominator that would explain all these enigmatic creatures .
Back to these shores however.
About 35years ago a couple of friends from Hawke Bay were shooting at a local firing range. Imagine their surprise when after firing the first volley, an extremely large cat like animal scampered up the steep bank at the rear, disappearing in to the trees. These men are outdoors people and hunters familiar with stray cats. Another couple believe they may have seen the same creature outside their residence one evening shortly after and at again at a later date crossing the highway.
A truly unusual incident occurred at Mangere, Auckland in July 1977. I am unsure if it fits in to the category that we are discussing however I will include it here out of interest. Security Officer Graham Stevens was doing his rounds when he spotted a large pair of beady yellow eyes staring at him through the darkness from across the bonnet of his van. He though they probably belonged to a pony they may have escaped from the circus he knew was in town. As he closed in to make friends he suddenly realized the eyes belonged to a rather large lion. Graham dived for the safety his vehicle and called HQ who in turn called police but by the time they arrived the mystery visitor had disappeared in to the dark. The circus manager later assured that all the animals had been safely tucked up for the night and that none were awol. So what did Graham see? Did he really mean lion when he used that word or did he just mean a species of big cat? I’ve been unable to find out.
In October 1980, several reports were made of a large marmalade coloured, lion sized creature in scrub covered farmland near Newlands, Wellington. One of the observers however, later retracted and declared it to be just a large cat although it was invariably described by others as being as large as an Alsatian dog. A nearby resident great Dane was also given blame.
When Tawa resident Ross Pedlar looked out his kitchen window one day in early December 1994, it was with utter disbelief at what he saw. There, sitting in the branches of a nearby tree, was an extremely large fawn coloured cat which he considered to be a puma. It still sat there as he excitedly spoke to police on the ‘phone, although it eventually wondered off in to bush nearby. Ross described the animal as standing as tall as a persons shoulder. Police and armed offenders searched the area without success. The incident was reported in the (Wellington) Evening Post and also aired nationally over news bulletins.
North Island sightings of ABCs seem few and far between. I am currently seeking further details of a reported evening sighting in the Kaitaia district whereby a large panther-like cat circled a vehicle a motorist was sleeping in while parked in a roadside lay-by.
An acquaintance of the author is presently investigating sightings in the lower Coromandel following a sighting and disconcerting incident at a secluded eastern coast bay.
So then, the big question is, what exactly are these witnesses seeing? Most common descriptions are as being like a puma, cougar or panther and of comparable size to Alsatian or Labrador dogs .Coloring seems to be limited to black or tan . Sightings (overseas) have been recorded from around the turn of the 20th century. Dogs become extremely nervous when in the same vicinity. Our quarry have an uncanny ability to melt away unseen in to the surroundings.
Are these creatures dangerous? In the main it appears not although as with any large animal in the wild it would be prudent to keep one’s distance. A rare example of an encounter gone wrong occurred in Australia on March 13th, 2003. Kenthurst (Nth West Sydney) teenager Luke Walker was walking home one moonlit evening when he was startled by a low growl. Without warning a large animal leapt upon him from just a few steps away, its sharp claws gashing open wounds on his arms and stomach. The creature, was described as being black, the size of a Labrador and very powerful. It immediately retreated and disappeared in to the night. Thankfully such human attacks are rare however marauding big cats are having a devastating effect on livestock in parts of Australia. Sheep are the main targets, their corpses with broken necks and stomachs ripped open presenting a sad and frustrating sight to farmers. Dismembered bodies have been found dangling from the branches of trees.
It is hoped this article will create an awareness of the reality of any future ABC sighting reported in NZ. If you have a previously undisclosed incident to report, the author would be pleased to hear from you as would the publication you are reading this in.
Special thanks go to those people who have been kind enough to share their experiences with the author and also to a fellow researcher who sent several older newspaper clippings plus personal research notes.
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