THE BEASTS OF BENMORE
Experts are close to confirming the existence of possibly two varieties of exotic big cats living wild in New Zealand – American mountain lions and African or Asian black leopards. Researcher IAN LUCAS and documentary-maker MARK ORTON provide two perspectives of the hunt for evidence, including the latest sightings
It was the morning of Monday the 18th of July, 1977 when Christchurch police received a startled call from concerned citizen. Mrs F Clark, a resident of Kaiapoi, rang to report she had seen a “tiger” outside the gate of her suburban home. The call was taken seriously as it was initially thought a big cat could have escaped from Orana Park Zoo. A thorough search of the area was fruitless, neither sight nor sign of any big feline eventuating. Poor Mrs Clark became the target of malicious calls, jokes were made about her, she was called a liar and worse. Redemption was forthcoming however when large pug marks and droppings were found at an isolated part of nearby Pines Beach later in the week, followed by a sighting of the elusive creature by a local farmer on the Friday afternoon.
It is unclear if Mrs Clark actually saw stripes on the cat or just used the term ‘tiger’ just to signify a very large member of the cat family .The mystery feline wasn’t to be seen again however and after a week of regular reporting, the Christchurch Press soon dropped the story-line. With what we know today however, this story would appear to be the first well-documented account of a so called ‘mystery big cat’ sighting in New Zealand.
A popular misconception is that sightings of the mysterious cats began in the mid 1990s, however research has shown this to be incorrect. Another fact, as was the case in the story just related, is that not all sightings are of black, panther type animals. Brown or tan-coloured cats resembling cougar/puma are also described.
Back in 2000 when I began researching the big cats I was fortunate to receive details of such a sighting from a gentleman who, in 1962, had been working on an orchard in the Cromwell Gorge area of Central Otago. After work one summer’s evening he faced his fears by gamely crossing the Clutha River on a rickety old flying fox. Successfully, but not without difficulty, he reached the far side and headed off towards an old miner’s cottage at the foot of a barren hillside. As he approached he became aware of a very large fawn coloured ‘puma’ just a few metres from the building. It quickly scarpered off up the slope, disappearing among rocks and wild rose bushes that grew higher up.
A Dunedin resident wrote me detailing an incident of around 1973, when she was out rabbit shooting with a friend in the back hills of Bendigo, Central Otago. The young lady states she remained as lookout, perched atop a large rock while her colleague worked the valley below. Suddenly something large and black shot out of bushes below her. It ran low and fast, had a noticeably long tail and was large enough to send the young lady running nervously to join her friend.
In 1989, 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. Around that time a gentleman travelling during day time on the road between Middlemarch and Hyde saw a large animal cross the highway further 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 mystery animal had disappeared into, he was wary about approaching for a closer inspection!
During the 90’s and up until the present time such sightings have become more regular, especially in the Central Otago, Canterbury regions. Several of these encounters were reported in Nov 2006 issue of Investigate by Ian Wishart in his article Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind. The Australian connection was also discussed at length however this is truly a global enigma. Sightings of similar animals have been well documented throughout the UK for decades. Older readers will recall references to the Beast of Bodmin, the Surrey Puma, the Exmoor and Basingstoke Beasts. To this day sightings are routinely being reported in Ireland and Wales in particular.
In Britain in the past 20 years, at least five mountain lions (cougars) have been either captured or shot, even close to London, and in 1988 a leopard was discovered roaming the countryside, before it too was shot.
Although less common, large cats have also been seen in mainland Europe, sightings ranging from Sweden to France. Earlier this year French authorities mounted a search for a tiger after credible positive sightings. Tigers, of course, used to roam throughout Europe but are now thought to be confined to Siberia.
Even the island of Hawaii is not exempt. A rash of sightings in 2003 led to the visit of an employee of the Arizona Fish and Game department in an effort to capture the elusive black beast. Needless to say he was not successful.
You may ask how so large an animal can survive hidden in our society today, being seen only on rare occasions. Members of the cat family can be extremely furtive, their camouflaged colouring enabling them to literally disappear into their surroundings. Lying flat to the ground completely still, you could walk within a metre of such an animal and be unaware of its presence. Proof of this was the discovery of a new breed of wild cat in Scotland. During the late ‘80’s three or four such unknown cats were shot and in 1988 one was caught in a fox trap by a gamekeeper.
Dubbed the Kellas cat, they have since been bred successfully in captivity, however they remain ferocious and extremely wary of humans. They have short jet black coats, slim bodies, long legs and muscular hind quarters. The upper jaw juts out beyond the lower and has protruding canines that are long and sharp.
The Ashburton Guardian has reported on several sightings down South. One worth mentioning was that of Jessica Sculley who in September 2006 witnessed a rare, two cat sighting. A resident of Wakanui, Jessica was delivering her two young sons to school when she noticed two very large black cats in a sheep paddock. The sheep bunched up and bolted, the sudden movement causing the cats to take off, disappearing in to a line of roadside trees. They were described as being not as large as Labradors but at least as tall as a foxy. Their gait however was described as a powerful trot rather than a lope and they had the telltale long, thick tail of other mystery black cats. Were these merely two exceedingly large feral cats?
Another Guardian article reports that in October the previous year, Mt Somer resident Mrs Andrea Thompson watched a large black cat dragging a lamb for about 20 metres, all the while being pursued by the ewe which was bleating and headbutting the would be sheepnapper! It only released its victim when Mrs Thompson yelled and screamed at it, leaping over a one metre high fence to escape.
One of the rarer, cougar type sightings was reported to have occurred in Queenstown during September 2004. Grant Carter, an Australian tourist was out on the balcony of his room at the Heritage hotel late one evening. His attention was drawn to something apparently tan-coloured walking up the scrub covered slope next to the hotel. Focussing on it, he noted it was the size of a Labrador but with the movement of a cat. Thankfully it took no notice of a passing pedestrian and disappeared in to the night.
It appears little known that there have also been a handful of big cat sightings north of Cook Strait. In October 1980 police received several reports of a large, marmalade, lion-sized animal in scrub covered farmland near Newlands, Wellington. One of the observers later retracted his statement and declared it to be just a large cat although it was invariably described by others as the size of an alsation dog.
Later, in December of 1994, Tawa resident Ross Pedlar found it difficult to believe his eyes when looking out his kitchen window early one morning. There, sitting in the branches of a nearby tree was an extremely large fawn coloured cat which he thought to be a puma! It remained there as he hurriedly phoned the police but it eventually wandered off in to nearby bush. Ross described the animal as standing as tall as a person’s shoulders. The surrounding area was searched without success by police and armed offenders. This incident was reported nationally on radio news bulletins as well as being reported in the Wellington Evening Post.
Some time around the early 1970’s two friends went to a Hawkes Bay firing range for a little target practice. Imagine their surprise when, after firing the first volley, an extremely large cat-like animal scarpered up the steep bank at the rear of the target area, disappearing in to trees on the ridge. Another couple believe they may have seen the same creature outside their residence one evening shortly after and on another occasion crossing the highway.
Other as yet unconfirmed sightings have been reported in Northland and the lower Coromandel areas.
More information, much of it previously unreported, has recently been forthcoming following the Dunedin, June premiere of a half hour documentary Prints Of Darkness. This edited version of many hours of interviewing big cat witnesses, was produced by Dunedin film maker Mark Orton and his able assistant Pip Walls. Initially a skeptic, Mark is now caught up in the excitement of the hunt for the mystery big cats although he is convinced that many of the sightings can be attributed to a breeding colony of oversized feral cats. He concedes however that there still remain a number of sightings that do not seem to fit this category. Due to public demand, another public screening of the documentary was made to a receptive audience in Ashburton in July. Mark is presently seeking funding to enable the creation of a much longer movie in which he will be able to present all the new information.
– IAN LUCAS
FURTHER INFORMATION: (BOX)
You can obtain a DVD copy of Prints Of Darkness for just $18.00 Check out Mark’s website for a preview and contact details www.printsofdarkness.co.nz
Inevitably there will be more sightings of these elusive creatures and, now that video and digital cameras are common accessories, it is hoped that more and better quality footage will eventually be forthcoming to help better identify the animals and convince the remaining sceptics of the validity of this enigma. This writer hopes that such a feline is not shot although this would be understandable if it was worrying stock. Meanwhile, the mystery remains unsolved.
You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org . Both myself and Investigate Magazine welcome any new information .
Prints of Darkness – The Aftermath
When reflecting on how the film Prints of Darkness evolved I will have to be honest and say that it very nearly didn’t happen in its present form. As a student searching for a documentary topic for my Post Graduate course in Natural History Filmmaking; I figured that a story detailing the eco-damage of New Zealand’s feral cats might be a little interesting, but it would need a hook. Already fascinated with strange cat sightings in The United Kingdom and Australia, I turned to our own beast of the backcountry as a possible accessory to the story. The trouble was, nobody wanted to hear about nasty little feral cats, the question I was constantly asked was “What do you think the black cat is”?
I was a little sceptical, well actually a lot sceptical, but I didn’t want to be remembered as the Buzz Aldrin of Dunedin. In other words, this was a prime opportunity to make the first documentary on this intriguing phenomenon. Furthermore, I still couldn’t shake the grainy image of a large black cat slinking through Al Kircher’s 2006 photos taken near Winterslow Station, home to some of the most credible sightings to date.
Linking up with Pip Walls as my film-partner in crime, we set about researching the story from where all good projects start, Google. It quickly transpired that not only was the available information sketchy at best, in many cases it simply didn’t fit the story that we had imagined. There was nothing else for it; we would have to immerse ourselves in the cat epicentre over the summer of 2006/7. Taking a trip down inland scenic route 72, our base became the appropriately named Panther’s Rock Tavern in Mayfield.
Our first major research pit-stop was always going to be Al Kircher’s place in Methven. In our minds, his photos are the best evidence yet that something sinister was stalking the back country. With his best Khaki’s on and the notoriously generous Mid-Canterbury hospitality that we came to rely on, Al entertained our hair-brained film idea; even the part about filming him next to the spot where the photo was taken. Little did we know what rugged country it was and that the last time Al had been out there was in a helicopter.
After four hours of Matagauri spikes, river crossings, bush crashing and shingle slides we made it to the spot and were not disappointed. From our calculations with a tape measure and a series of photos, we were able to bring some scale to the images and clarify for ourselves that the feline object in Al’s photograph was significantly larger than any cat that should, by rights, be living wild in New Zealand.
Not only did this convince us that we might be onto something, but shortly afterwards the Christchurch Press and the Ashburton Guardian ran pieces about our research and our inbox ran hot. With some maps, pins and old fashioned research tools we refined our area of interest, ‘or the crime scene’ as we referred to it and drew up a list of questions to answer.
From the exhaustive phone conversations conducted over two weeks in November 2006 a definite pattern and similarity between sightings started to emerge.
The most interesting points were:
1. Almost unanimously black in colour (but not always)
2. Almost always occurred in winter and just after a fresh snowfall.
3. The ‘Cat’ had a very long bushy ‘tubular’ tail
4. The cat moved with a long loping stride and very fast
5. Sightings were clustered over a 30 year period with records of sightings back as far as the 1920s.
Now, while there were many other details of significance that would crop up again we focused on these points and started to re-visit our catalogue of sightings with greater rigour and tighter criteria. After this process we still had 16 very credible sightings (some supported with secondary evidence) that stretched from the 1970s to August 2006. This was quite interesting as many officials that we interviewed on this subject insisted it was a recent phenomenon that only came to light in the mid-1990s.
Totally obsessed with the task at hand we ploughed through everything we could lay our hands on and some very interesting material surfaced. Way too much for the 24 minute film that we had to deliver. However, that did not stop us filming enough to elaborate on the subject if there is enough interest to warrant a longer version of the film at some stage.
After spending a lot of time talking with witnesses on the phone and then putting them in front of the camera we decided that, yes, there definitely are big cats living in the New Zealand backcountry. While it would be much more convenient to have just ‘one’ phantom cat, we had to conclude that this was simply not possible because of three major points.
1. The life span of a big cat in the wild is 15-20 years at best
2. The distance travelled for hunting or mating is huge (150-200 kilometres in a week) but we were dealing with an even bigger area than that.
3. The cats being reported were not all the same colour.
However, the fact still remained that credible people had seen something extraordinary. What was it and would the various theories, speculations and urban myths stand up to some serious interrogation?
We set about finding answers to questions that were constantly asked but never investigated.
1. We tested the escaped circus legend and found an intriguing story related to an escaped cat in the mid-80s. (never substantiated)
2. What about border control and possible illegal importations? Once again, no one is going to own up to an illegal importation though we do have on record a wildlife expert speculating on very relaxed importation conditions up to 15 years ago. Furthermore, MAF failed to provide us with a record that they supposedly keep of circus/zoo/game park animals entering or leaving N.Z.
3. We contacted workers at two defunct privately owned game parks in the South Island to get an idea of what cats they had. There were leopards, lions, jaguars and even a bobcat but no ‘black’ pumas or jaguars, the two cats that are commonly associated with the name ‘Black Panther’
4. Genetics experts were interviewed to test the theory that the cat might be a feral cat with a form of gigantism.
5. We spent time with DOC trapping feral cats to see if there was any co-relation with their work and the sightings we were testing.
6. We analysed records from the turn of the century where farmers and miners were known to import certain cats from the U.K. to help contain the rodent and emerging rabbit problem. We discovered information suggesting that bobcats and lynx were imported and that the feral cats sighted in the wild were getting so large that dogs were not game to approach them.
7. Was there enough food to sustain a big cat? Was there any evidence of fresh kills or loss of stock? The answer was yes to both questions, we managed to obtain some quite gruesome photos of mauled sheep and had noticed big numbers of rabbits/hares and birds in the areas where cat sightings had occurred.
With all this information we were dangerous, but as they say in film-making parlance, you have to ‘kill your darlings’. Certain sequences and scenes would have to remain as digital files. With limited time available to flesh out any of these issues, we concentrated on a film that would educate the lay person about the circumstances and let the viewer meet some of the ordinary people with extraordinary tales to tell. With that decision made, we could introduce the viewer to a couple of pieces of secondary evidence that we had beaten the sensationalist media to.
While interviewing Sarah and Blair Gallagher at their property in Mt Somers (the site of truck driver Chad Stewart’s very credible 2003 sighting) we discovered that Sarah had kept a sample of black hair attached to the fence that the cat had leapt over. Her efforts to discover what animal the hair had come from fell on deaf ears at MAF so we took the task on.
Similarly, just over the ridge in nearby Staveley, Hamish Bruce was in the process of building his new house when he noticed some very large freshly made paw prints with no discernable claw marks. We were keen to learn more and sent the photos overseas to two big cat experts who were guiding us. Their comments were very interesting.
Furthermore, while we were filming in Mayfield at the home of Andrea Thompson who had seen a cat attacking a lamb, we were contacted by a hunter who had seen a very large cat that had, in his own words, “put the wind up him and his hunting companions”. Seeing as he was only a short trip along the inland scenic route we made a date to meet at a local pub and have a yarn. What transpired was most interesting. Not only was the conviction in their story captivating, but their associate Ben Bell mentioned that he could remember talk in the area that there was a plan to release cougars into the Canterbury foothills to control Deer.
With our bullshit detectors now fully honed, we quickly dispatched it to the boundary. However, when reviewing the tape back in Dunedin, I decided to look through the Canterbury newspaper archives out of curiosity, and to my great surprise I discovered that Ben’s memory had in fact been spot on. While we are undoubtedly happy that the story we ended up telling has attracted a lot of positive media attention and has recently been nominated for an award at the Documentary New Zealand Film Festival, we have uncovered additional information that we are sure the public would find fascinating.
While we were in the final throws of editing, something happened that we simply couldn’t ignore. Through our new found celebrity, a Central Otago landowner found my contact details on the Internet and phoned me up to report a sighting that was possibly one of the best in terms of detail, and it gets better. Close-by, he discovered bird and sheep carcasses, claw makes on trees and posts and fresh scat. As he was new to this (I mean, who do you call when you think you have just seen a Puma?), he asked my advice. I put him in contact with MAF and sent images of the scat, claw marks and other detail overseas. The initial response from the local authorities was less than helpful, until they received the scat.
My contact in the United Kingdom confirmed that the scat and claw marks were consistent with a big cat. Furthermore, when the scat was finally analysed in New Zealand it was confirmed as cat scat and a professional hunter was dispatched to the property to see if he could gather some ‘conclusive’ evidence. Adding fuel to the speculation, the same landowner (who wishes to remain anonymous) and his wife spotted what appeared to be the same cat again.
While nothing has been shot yet, the landowner has invested in surveillance equipment to see if he can do what has yet to be done in New Zealand, capture moving images of the mysterious cat.
And still, the phone calls kept coming with further information to follow up. It would be fair to say that at this point we are worn out with the constant questions and analysis of our film topic. But, the lid simply would not fit back on the can of worms. Out of the blue a handwritten manuscript of a book detailing one man’s life tracking cats in the Waimakiriri Gorge turned up. Complete with photos and map/grid references, the detail is so astonishing that it has caused us to re-evaluate the history of Mystery Cat sightings in New Zealand. Furthermore, with flagging spirits now revived; we have the impetus to complete the process by pitching a longer version of the story to broadcasters and funding bodies. Watch this space.