A few bits of circumstantial evidence suggest to some that feral cats in Australia are now reaching enormous sizes, equivalent to that of a small leopard. This sounds incredible: how does the evidence hold up?
Tetrapod Zoology exists in a delicate balance. On the one hand I want to try and maintain some sort of credibility as a trained scientist, but on the other hand there is a strong incentive to write about the fantastic, the incredible, and the bizarre, simply because this is what generates the hits. More people will read a post about Godzilla or sasquatch than about tree frogs or small brown passerines, for example. Like, 15,000 more people. It is partly with this in mind that I have felt the urge to write the long-promised post on the giant Australian feral cats (go here to see a previous hint that this subject would be covered one day). As usual with fringe-type subjects, I know that this is something that will generate extreme scepticism in most readers – and rightly so given that this idea is perhaps hard to swallow – but, as usual with these things, having learnt about the details I think that there is some really interesting stuff here. Regular readers will know that I always try and self-justify my occasional forays into cryptozoology and associated topics in this way, mostly out of a massive amount of paranoia. Anyway, to business.
Wherever it is in the world that you live, you’ve probably heard tales and reports of mysterious big cats that wander about the countryside and, generally, go unphotographed and uncaught. Here in Britain people regularly report big ‘black panthers’, tan-coloured ‘pumas’, bob-tailed ‘lynxes’ and an assortment of smaller spotted and striped cats that variously recall Leopard cats Prionailurus bengalensis and Jungle cats Felis chaus. These animals are known as ABCs or Alien Big Cats.
As I’ve tried to get across in previous articles (see British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence? and The Cupar roe deer carcass), the whole ‘unphotographed and uncaught’ thing is not true, and in reality there are numerous photographs and even several dead bodies demonstrating that feral alien cats are a reality (Shuker 1995). The idea that leopard cats, jungle cats, lynxes and even leopards and pumas have escaped from captivity or been surreptitiously released is not exactly difficult to accept, and if you think it is I suggest you read up on the evidence. We also know that peculiar new hybrids are appearing; the best known of them is the peculiar gracile-limbed Kellas cat, apparently an introgressive hybrid between feral domestic cats and Scottish wildcats (Shuker 1990).
For most places that supposedly harbour ABCs, the ‘escaped alien’ theory best fits the evidence. However, that hasn’t stopped various researchers from coming up with other theories, and one that has cropped up again and again over the years is that some of the ABCs represent a new strain of unprecedentedly large feral cat of the species Felis catus, the domestic cat. This sounds to me like one of those poorly founded ideas thought up by someone without much knowledge of the subject, and like most researchers I have never taken it seriously. In the standard review work on ABCs, Mystery Cats of the World, Karl Shuker expressed scepticism of this idea too, noting that ‘Even though feral domestics have established themselves throughout the world, no evidence has been obtained to suggest that F. catus can and does attain a body size commensurate with sheep- or deer-killing’ (Shuker 1989, p. 53).
However… last year I attended a conference at which Australian cryptozoologist Paul Cropper gave a talk on Australian ABCs. For me it was among the most memorable talks of the event, and here’s why: he showed two video clips that both showed large, black cats (large = apparently exceeding 1 m in total length). But rather than being feral leopards or any other cat species that exhibits melanism, the weird thing is that these cats looked like gigantic specimens of F. catus.
The first bit of footage (I’ve been unable to track down details on when and where it was filmed: let me know if you can help) showed a big black cat slinking along a vegetated hillside. The cat appeared to be very large (I say this based on the size of the surrounding vegetation, and on the overall look and ‘heaviness’ of the animal), but its pointed ears, tail and gait make it look quite different from a leopard or any other big cat. It also looked nothing like a leopard cat, ocelot, caracal, lynx, or any of the golden cats. Clearly, what I’m getting at is hard to quantify, but it was as if someone had super-sized a feral moggie.
The second video that Paul showed was even more remarkable (a still – from here – from the sequence is shown at left). We start with a daytime shot of a perfectly normal grey domestic cat, sat on a shrub-covered hillside near a stand of trees. Then the camera pans to the right. From behind the trees slowly emerges a big black cat, apparently more than twice the size of the grey domestic cat. Yet its head and face – which we can see in full detail – show without doubt that it is a domestic cat, with vertical pupils, pointed ears, and a dainty snout quite unlike the deeper snout of the large cats. Its shoulder blades appear proportionally big and overall it appears unusually muscular. The ordinary grey cat, sat not less than two metres away, is not in the least perturbed by the presence of this monster. I struggled to understand what I was seeing: was this some sort of trick using forced perspective?
Filmed in 2001 at Lithgow, New South Wales, by Gail Pound and her husband Wayne, the video has been the subject of a lot of discussion and controversy. So far as I can tell there is indeed general agreement that it really does show a monstrously large, black feral cat that some people estimate to be about 1.5 m long in total. Here is an extract (from here) from a news article…
Last year, the NSW government asked a seven-member panel of big cat experts to view a video shot near Lithgow, west of Grose Vale, of what appeared to be a large black cat – possibly a panther – in close proximity to a large feral cat. They concluded that the larger of the two was a huge feral cat, two to three times normal size. Their reasoning was only that they did not think a feral cat would be so close to a panther.
The Lithgow film is not the only decent bit of footage that exists. Another was filmed at Dunkeld in the southern Grampians, Victoria, in December 2004 by Andrew Burston (go here for the footage). Again, the cat looks very odd: the profile of the back appears more like that of a small cat than a large one (Felis cats have a more obviously convex lumbar and pelvic region than pumas and big cats); its tail appears proportionally too short for a leopard or puma; and its gait and the shape of its head also look more like those of a Felis cat than of a puma or big cat. This time we have an excellent scale bar, as the animal actually walks within a few metres of an adult kangaroo.
I’m not going to attempt to estimate sizes here (I’m notoriously bad at doing that), but I conclude that the Dunkeld cat both (1) looks more like a Felis cat than anything else and (2) is exceptionally big. Burston estimated its shoulder height at 75 cm, and this doesn’t seem inappropriate. A Melbourne zoo official, Noel Harcourt, went on record as saying that the animal was a large feral cat and not a leopard or other exotic species, but didn’t comment on the animal’s exceptional size.
Other bits of video footage, and photos, apparently showing particularly big feral black cats can also be seen on Mike William’s blog Australian Big Cats. Mike has been trying hard to drum up some serious academic interest in this subject and, as we’ll see, there is good reason to be very, very interested in the evidence he and his colleagues now have [adjacent image doesn't show the Dunkeld cat, but an alleged big feral cat photographed by Bob McPherson].
There are always problems in interpreting video footage and photos. Is the Lithgow cat really as big as it appears to be, or are we being tricked by some quirk of perspective? Are we jumping to conclusions in thinking that the kangaroo in the Dunkeld footage really provides a scale bar for the cat? And it’s difficult to judge the size of the cat in some of the other video clips and photos. You’ll be pleased to hear then, that video footage and photos are not the only evidence we have. There are also dead bodies.
We’ll discuss the least impressive of them first: it’s a feral cat that was shot in Victoria, and Mike has actually produced a video where he films this skin and the animal’s skull: the video is up on youtube here. As he states and shows in the video, the head and body length is 870 mm, and the tail length is 360 mm (giving a combined length of 1230 mm). For comparison, feral cats from elsewhere are reported to have head and body lengths of between c. 460 and 522 mm and tail lengths of between c. 269 and 300 mm (Kitchener 1991), giving a combined length at most of c. 822 mm. What is alleged to be the world record domestic cat, an Australian tabby named Himmy, had a total length of 965 mm and exceptionally big pre-1900 Scottish wildcat specimens had head and body lengths averaging 639 mm and tail lengths averaging 310 mm (giving a combined length of 949 mm). I used pre-1900 data as Scottish wildcats have been declining in size since that time and the pre-1900 cats were exceptionally big compared to living ones (Tomkies 1991). Two world-record Scottish wildcats had combined head, body and tail lengths of 990 and 1100 mm and an English pet tabby, whom I measured in 1991, had a head and body length of c. 700 mm and a tail length of c. 317 mm (giving a combined length of 1017 mm*). The Australian skin is therefore large, but not exceptionally, remarkably so. That’s not where the story ends though.
* Which either means that Himmy isn’t the biggest domestic cat ever or my measuring was off. Hmm. I have good photos of the cat I measured if anyone wants to see them (and perhaps try to work out how big the animal was).
Now for the more impressive specimen. Shot in Gippsland in June 2005 by Kurt Engel, a deer hunter, this one was apparently about as big as a leopard at c. 1.6 m long, though only its tail remains extant as Engel dumped the body in a river (I’m not sure why). There are photos of the whole body (one of them can be seen at left and another at the top of the page) but those that have been released so far don’t provide any obvious scale: better photos are apparently to appear in a book. The tail that Engel retained is 650 mm long and preliminary DNA testing performed at Melbourne’s Monash University indicated that it does indeed belong to F. catus. If this is correct – it requires validation – I don’t what to say other than… holy crap. A news report on the specimen and the DNA testing can be viewed here.
So are feral cats in Australia really growing to amazingly large body sizes? We can’t yet be sure, but the evidence is looking pretty good. As mentioned, Mike Williams and his colleagues are trying to get academic scientists more interested in this subject, and as yet the apparent existence of these giant ferals has gone largely unrecognised outside of the cryptozoological community. I for one aim to keep up to date with this subject, and I’ll report further developments here at Tetrapod Zoology. I am planning to attend an ABC conference that’s happening later this month and will post news on that if and when I attend.
Refs – –
Kitchener, A. 1991. The Natural History of the Wild Cats. Christopher Helm, London.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.
– . 1990. The Kellas cat: reviewing an enigma. Cryptozoology 9, 26-40.
– . 1995. British mystery cats – the bodies of evidence. Fortean Studies 2, 143-152.
Tomkies, M. 1991. Wildcats. Whittet Books, London.