MYSTERIOUS sightings of large black cats prowling the Perth Hills have re-surfaced after a resident witnessed one of the elusive beasts in Chidlow earlier this month.
Mt Helena resident Lisa Speyer said she was picking up her son when she saw the big, black cat.
“I’m not talking about a domestic size cat, I’m talking about panther size,” she said.
“It moved differently to a dog, was crouched like a cat and had distinctive eyes.
“In the 43 years I’ve lived in the Hills I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The sighting prompted a flood of residents to share their own glimpses of big cats in the region.
Swan Valley resident Vanessa Ričkman saw a large black animal on Toodyay Road near Morangup.
“A massive, black panther type cat appeared near a tree along the edge of a dam,” she said.
“It was huge. We’ve never moved so fast and got the hell out of there.”
Boya resident Nigel Goodman said his wife witnessed a black cat the size of a Labrador attack their pet cat late last year.
“Our cat had the scars to prove it,” he said.
“My wife was just five metres away from the animal which she described as sleek and 80cm long excluding its tail.
“In the Yorkshire Moors in England there are many reports of large cats but in my nine years living here I’ve never heard of such large cats roaming this area.”
Beyond a shadow of a doubt – big cats populate the Hills, says Vaughan King, founder of the Australian Big Cat Research Group.
Mr King, who grew up in Kalamunda before working as a big cat handler at Australia Zoo in Queensland, said the Darling Scarp provided prime habitat not only for feral cats, but big cats such as cougars and panthers.
He said documented sightings pointed to a healthy, established population of cougars and panthers, and possibly black leopards, surviving and thriving in outer lying areas of Perth.
“The thick bush that covers the Hills would allow a population of big cats to live out its days relatively inconspicuously,” he said.
“It has the three main things a big cat needs to survive – prey, water and shelter.”
Mr King said the big cats were likely descendants of escaped circus animals or US Navy mascots.
“I have spoken personally with a circus owner who admitted to my face that they had lost numerous species, including big cats, into the Australian bush over the years,” he said.
“Back in those days, animal movements weren’t policed very well, and if an animal was lost, more likely than not it was reported as deceased of which no proof was required by authorities.
“I also believe some of the original animals that started the populations we have today, were once pets or mascots to military stationed here during WWII.
“When you start looking deeply into the locations of historic military bases and outposts and overlay that with big cat sighting data, it is very easy to put two and two together.”
While the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) would neither confirm nor deny the existence of big cats, Hills naturalist Mike Griffths urged authorities to keep an open mind.
“There are loads of feral cats out there and some are huge, so you can’t blame authorities for being conservative when someone reports they have just seen a panther,” he said.
“But they do need to need to take note of sightings and the public need to document their evidence better.
“Authorities need really good info before they can do anything and what they mainly get is just stories so naturally conclude it is likely to be a feral cat.”
Mr King said there were far too many big cat sightings for it to be a case of mistaken identity with a feral cat.
“Feral cats usually max out at around 5-10kgs, although some of the bigger feral cats that have been culled, have weighed in closer to the 20kg mark which is big feral, but not a big cat,” he said.
“Depending on the species of big cat, they would usually start around the 40kg mark and get up to around 110kg for a fully grown male leopard.”
Mr Griffiths said the bulk of descriptions from sightings in WA pointed to two different species of big cats.
“Robustly-built light brown animals seemed to be consistent with pumas, otherwise known as mountain lions or cougars, and more slender black animals are consistent with the leopard which is the true black panther,” he said.
“Several people have told me about hearing powerful screams that fit the puma’s scream and there was one account of people hearing the famous leopard “wood saw” call.
“There has also been evidence of footprints and accounts of sheep and kangaroos being killed, dragged and dirt kicked on them – which is characteristic of several big cat species.
“Dogs don’t do this and few animals can handle such big prey.”
Mr Griffiths said he was not surprised there was no hard photographic evidence of the existence of big cats.
“Most cat species are highly secretive, solitary and largely nocturnal,” he said.
“Most sightings happen fast and it is incredibly difficult to get a reasonable photo and almost impossible to get one to the standard required by scientists and officials.”
Mr Griffiths said it was important potential sightings were well documented.
“It’s important you note the tail length in relation to the animal’s body length, whether the tail was thick or thin, loose or straight or with a curl.
These characteristics are key points of difference to a feral cat.
“Also document evidence of scratch marks on trees, what type of animals are killed or if an animal is killed in an unusual way such as massive bites behind the neck or clean carcasses left behind.”
Mr King said it was only a matter of time before the presence of big cats in the Hills was proven true.
“The question is, how do we ensure the safety of the general public who have no idea these animals are out there,” he said.
Mr Griffiths said authorities were also cautious about hunters heading bush to try and bag a big cat.
“If big cats become a serious possibility you will get cowboys who want to go out and shoot one so they can have the glory of being on the front page of newspaper,” he said.
“These hunters can be a danger to wildlife.”
Big cat sightings can be reported to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.bigcats.com.au