MYTH or menace? For decades it has been rumoured that giant cats could exist in the wild around Ballarat.
Now a leading expert at the University of Ballarat says it is in fact plausible – though he’s never seen any proof.
History and anthropology lecturer Dr David Waldron has been researching stories about the existence of so-called pumas or panthers in Australia for several years.
Earlier this week, reader Noel Judd went on the hunt for one such creature after the reported death of a Shetland pony in Smythesdale.
Mr Judd sent The Courier photos of what appeared to be large animal footprints, although it was not clear exactly what they were.
Dr Waldron saw the photos, which were published online, and said that since there were clearly claws in the footprints, it was almost certainly not any form of cat.
The historian said that years of research had led him to believe giant cats most likely did not exist – but he didn’t rule it out.
“It’s definitely plausible that there are still some out there,” he said.
Dr Waldron said that in the early 19th century, many travellers brought species of tiger, leopard or lion to the docks in Melbourne – some of which could have been set free.
Click here for a video report with Dr David Waldron.
There were also cases of animals escaping from the circus and other dingo-like creatures that people mistook for giant cats.
Dr Waldron spent years trawling through government documents, old newspaper clippings and speaking to old farmers and policemen, trying to gather as much information as possible for a book on the subject.
He has not been trying to prove they exist, nor trying to dispel the myth.
Rather he has focused on the fascinating impact the creatures have on Australian folklore.
“One animal can engender a panic that will last for years,” Dr Waldron said.
“There has been an awful lot of sightings in the Ballarat era, stretching right back to the goldfields era.
“The things that concerns me the most though is the lack of actual evidence. Why are they never found dead after bush fires?
“Why are they never found as roadkill, as they are in America?” he asked.
Snarls from the Tea-Tree: History of Victorian Big Cat Folklore, which Dr Waldron has co-authored with Simon Townsend, is due to be published later this year.
Dr Waldron’s research collection is also available for public viewing at the Geoffrey Blainey Research Centre at UB during opening times or by appointment.
Visit www.ballarat.edu.au/curator for further information.