Photos purported to show ‘mystery animals’ are always great fun. One of the most perplexing and curious of the lot was taken on a box Brownie camera near Goroke, western Victoria, Australia, in 1964. I’m referring, of course, to Rilla Martin’s photo of a strange, striped, running mammal.
This photo has generally become known as ‘the Ozenkadnook tiger photo’; in fact, the term ‘Ozenkadnook tiger’ was and is used for a supposed mystery beast (suspected by witnesses and locals to be a mainland Thylacine Thylacinus cynocephalus) seen since the 1880s across southwestern Victoria and southeastern South Australia (Healy & Cropper 1994). The specific photo is, therefore, better known as ‘the Rilla Martin photo’.
Martin reported that, while on holiday one day in 1964, she was driving along between Goroke and Apsley. With time to spare, she chose to drive along the dirt track near Ozenkadnook. She’d been photographing relatives while at Goroke (where her cousin lived) and had the camera next to her, on the front seat. In the woods close to the road, she caught sight of an unusual animal, standing at the edge of the scrub. She stopped the car and snapped one photo, just as the animal began to run away [a close-up of its head is shown below].
Martin later returned home to Melbourne, and there then seem to be two versions of what happened next. Some sources state that she mailed the photo to her relatives (saying in a letter “Here is the photograph of the animal that I told you about”), who then took it to the local newspaper office (Chapple 2000). Others imply that she handed the photo herself to The Wimmera Mail-Times (Williams & Lang 2010). It then appeared in the Syndney Morning Herald and became a national sensation. Unable to identify the animal, “wildlife experts were quick to denounce it as a fraud” (Williams & Lang 2010, p. 202). A claim from 1969 that her cousin developed the film for her, and inserted a photo he had taken of a “dummy tiger”, is inconsistent with both stories and seems to be an invention.
Martin’s photo has been much reproduced and is highly familiar to people who know the cryptozoological literature: it shows what looks like a large, quadrupedal predator with a long tail, deep chest, tall shoulders, and a rather deep head. The photo really isn’t that bad, but foliage that overlaps the head makes it difficult to work out what the head’s shape really was. Incidentally, the original photograph has been lost by the offices of The Wimmera Mail-Times, so all the versions you see here and elsewhere are scans of copies published by newspapers (and I’ve no idea where the negatives are).
What looks like an upper outline to the snout and forehead is, I currently think, actually an illusion resulting from fortuitously arranged twigs and leaves. There might be an ear visible at top right, but again I think this might be an illusion. An imaginative reconstruction of the animal is shown above in a cartoon I produced many years ago (Martin’s beast is shown alongside a few other Australian creatures of cryptozoological interest).
Martin reported that the animal had a pig-like snout and she compared the creature with a labrador in size. Its ‘striping’ is perhaps its most vexing feature: it really looks like the animal has pale striping across its shoulders and the back of its neck, with a darker ground colour surrounding these stripes and much of the rest of the forequarters. The hindquarters appear slender compared to the deep chest and the tail looks long and slim. The hindquarters are also very light in tone, almost certainly as a result of bright sunlight falling on this part of the animal. Indeed, it’s very hard to know where light and shadow end and where pigmentation begin on the animal, and Martin herself said that she didn’t much notice the stripes when taking the photograph. This might mean that the ‘stripes’ are dappling formed by sunlight. It’s not really possible to know.
One minor point worth noting is that, like so many ‘famous’, oft-reproduced photos, the version you see in many books is cropped and the original was somewhat larger [as an example, the adjacent cropped version is from Michell & Rickard (1982). Compare it with the uncropped version used above]. Uncropped versions show more forest litter in the foreground, and more trees in the background.
So… what is it? I don’t know, and I’d welcome your thoughts. It doesn’t look to me like a big cat or a domestic or feral dog: the shape is just wrong. And nothing else matches either: it’s clearly not a kangaroo, horse, or anything else that might be expected to be wandering around the scrub in Victoria. A popular suggestion in the cryptozoological literature has been that the creature was perhaps either a Thylacine or a thylacoleonid (= marsupial lion). Thylacines officially became extinct on the Australian mainland about 3000 years ago (and the last verified individual – Benjamin, of Hobart Zoo – died of neglect in 1936), but it’s well known that many people claim to have seen them on the mainland in recent years. Of course, one could embark at this point on a lengthy discussion of Thylacine survival… I’ll leave that for another time.
Does the animal in Martin’s photo look like a Thylacine anyway? Actually, its shape and the positions of its legs are vaguely Thylacine-like: the high shoulders, the apparently long, slim tail, and the stiff look to the forelimbs all remind me (and others: Healy & Cropper 1994) of a running Thylacine. But things aren’t quite right: the shoulders look too high for a Thylacine and the proportions are off. And what the hell is going on with the striping? If the head really is deep and blunt-snouted, this also counts against a Thylacine identity [the adjacent staged Thylacine photo – by H. Burrell, taken in 1921 – is one of several argued by Freeman (2005) to be of a posed taxiderm specimen. I’m not sure I agree that the specimen was a stuffed one, but there’s no doubt that the photos were staged].
The thylacoleonid idea (mooted by those who have proposed that the big, striped predators seen in the Australian bush might, just might, be living marsupial lions) is even more fanciful than the Thylacine one.
Could it have been a hoax? The object in the photo looks like a real, three-dimensional animal with muscles. An attempt by the ABC TV company to put a hand-painted wooden cut-out near the location of the sighting and photograph it reportedly resulted in photos that look like those of a cut-out (Healy & Cropper 1994). John Martin, Rilla’s brother, stated as recently as 1999 that the photo was no hoax and, responding to suggestions that photo manipulation of some sort might have been involved, stated that “we country kids hardly knew how to take a photo, let alon[e] fiddle with it” (Williams & Lang 2010, p. 202). I don’t think it’s a hoax: I think it’s a photo of a real animal. And that’s basically all I have to say. I long to know what the creature is, but I can’t work it out. Let me know what you think.
The story of Rilla Martin’s 1964 photo has been told many times in the mystery animal literature. This article was mostly inspired by its discussion in Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang’s new book Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers [shown in adjacent image], which I’m currently reading and will be reviewing here at some stage.
UPDATE (added 20th August 2010): while looking at the photo again today, I noticed something I haven’t seen before (but possibly alluded to in comment # 6 below): beneath the left hindlimb is what looks like a curved supporting structure, clearly demarcated from the surroundings and with alternating dark and light bands. A close-up of the relevant part of the photo, and a very schematic attempt to depict it, is shown here. Now that I’ve noticed this, it’s difficult not to interpret it as an artificial supporting structure.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on photos or films of mystery animals, see…
- Really: photos of the Loch Ness monster
- Best lake monster image ever: the Mansi photo
- The amazing Hook Island sea monster photos
- Santa Cruz’s duck-billed elephant monster
- Professor Sharpe’s mysterious sea-serpent photo
- Where are all the dead sea monsters?
- Filming Migo, the monster of Lake Dakataua
- A ‘lake monster’ caught on film at Lake Champlain
And for more on Australian mystery animals see…
- Australia’s new feral mega-cats
- Lithgow mega-cat footage goes live
- What was the animal in the ‘Jaws’ photo?
- Identifying that ‘Jaws’ carcass
- The 2006 Night parrot: dead, decapitated, evidence for collision with a fence… but otherwise the news is good
- What to make of the Yowie?
Refs – –
Chapple, P. 2000. Mystery animals of Australia: a brief overview. Unpublished report of Rare Fauna Research Association (Monbulk, Victoria).
Freeman, C. 2005. Is this picture worth a thousand words? An analysis of Henry Burrell’s photograph of a thylacine with a chicken. Australian Zoologist 33, 1-16.
Healy, T. & Cropper, P. 1994. Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia. Ironbark (Chippendale, Australia).
Michell, J. & Rickard, R. J. M. 1982. Living Wonders: Mysteries and Curiosities of the Animal World. Thames & Hudson (London).
Williams, M. & Lang, R. 2010. Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers. Strange Nation (Hazelbrook, Australia).