Friday, 15 August 2014

Strange Striped Animals in North Queensland

     Alleged big cats are not the only mystery predators reported from north Queensland. Some of them have stripes, and a blanket explanation for all of them is not immediately obvious. Nowadays, witnesses and journalists tend to leap to the conclusion that they are thylacines, extinct for several thousand years on the mainland and officially extinct in Tasmania. In most such cases, the resemblance to a real thylacine is far from exact, and an identification as a brindled dingo, or some sort of mangy dog would appear more appropriate. However, every now and then the word "stripes" occurs in the same account as "cat", and if there is one thing the average Australian knows it is the difference between a dog (long faced) and a cat (short faced). Some, I am convinced, are overgrown (sometimes much overgrown) feral tabbies. But just the same ...
     During the early decades of the last century rumours were rife of a mysterious striped marsupial tiger in north Queensland. In 1998 I wrote an article about it in the limited distribution magazine, The Northern Star and on 27 July of that year a letter was sent to me from a Mr George Reid.
     In about 1914 or 15 my father (Fergie) was about 15 or 16 years old and one day on the Atherton Tableland near Peeramon [17° 18' S, 145° 37' E] he and one or two of his brothers found a wooden box trap with a very wild animal inside it and a bullocky came along and told the two youngest brothers to go home. The bullocky then cut a stick a couple of inches thick and 2 or 3 feet long and told my father to stand behind the box and lift the door up. A cat like animal came out of the box and went straight for the bullocky who hit it with the stick and after the cat attacked him a couple of more times it couldn't get up and the man was able to kill it.
     The animal had stripes on its hindquarters and some spots on the front half.
     It was a dirty brown yellowy sort of colour.
     A cat like head.
     About as big as a kelpie or border collie.
     Its tail, about as long as its body and a bit like a kangaroo's tail.
     My father and his next brother used to ride horses from their cane farm at the foot of Mt Bartle Frere to a tobacco farm on the tableland, and they rode up and over Bartle Frere via a track through the scrub. [This would be about 18 - 20 km from Peeramon in a direct line.]    On one of these trips one of these animals was sitting on a log across the track and Fergie and Bill threw stones and yelled at him to try and frighten him off but he only snarled at them and they had to cut a track around him to get past.
     This was a much bigger one than the first and was between 3 and 4 feet [90 - 120 cm] from nose to tip of tail.
     They had shortish legs in comparison to a dog. The prospectors told Fergie they used to raid their tents for food.
     My father will be 100 in January and still has a good memory.
     I spoke to Mr Reid by telephone on 1st August that year, and he told me he had talked to his father after reading my article, and then wrote the letter. However, he had heard the story so many times before and it was always the same. The animal definitely did not have a long canine face. His father's brother also caught a small one in a rabbit trap.
Comment: What can one say? Reservations must always be had about recollections 83-84 years after the event. Just the same, the fact that it had been repeated in the same format many times indicates that the memory had stabilised in a particular form. A kangaroo-like tail and spots in front have not be described before. According to Dr E. Denny, the most common coat colour for feral cats is striped tabby, and a really big tom will reach 740 mm head-body with a tail of 345 mm, or the size of a fox, and well within the range of this animal. However, I have doubts about them reaching that size a full hundred years ago. Also, if they were merely large feral cats, one wonders why the small one caught in a rabbit trap wasn't simply recognized as a cat.

     On 16 November 2002 I spoke to a Mr Gordon Baker of Millaa Millaa, a former timber getter who claimed to have seen a tiger cat on several occasions. He said it was bigger than a normal cat, and has stripes like a tiger. It was also quite distinct from the native cats (Dasyurus sp.), which are spotted. Indeed, he remembered a zoologist from the James Cook University suggesting he was discussing the northern quoll (D. hallucatus), but he insisted it was different, and the zoologist insisted the "tiger cat" didn't exist. (I might add that these spotted marsupial predators are very rarely sighted.)
     His best sighting was in the region of the small siding of Belyando, a place too small to appear on any map in my possession. However, I am advised that it is a river crossing with a road house and fuel pump half way between Clermont and Charters Towers, providing the only fuel for 390 km. I therefore deduce it is located where the the Northern Inland Highway crosses the frequently dry Belyando River at about 21° 33' S, 146° 56' E. The incident occurred some time in the 1980s, so we are looking at a memory which is somewhat stale. The time was about 11 am and the distance no more than 9 metres. He and his wife were driving when the animal walked across the road, looked, walked back into the forest, turned around, looked back again, and disappeared. Unfortunately, his camera was in the port.
     The animal was bigger than an ordinary cat, about 12 - 14 inches [30 - 36 cm] high, with a nose-to-tail length of about 23 inches [58 cm], and a long tail. The ears were rounded, rather than pointed like a cat's. The face was a bit more bull-nosed than a cat's ie a fraction longer, and didn't "come in" like an ordinary cat's. The stripes went "backbone to belly" like a tiger's, an estimated 1 - 1½ inches [2½ - 4 cm] wide. (That sounds extremely broad for such a short animal, and I suspect they were overestimated.)
     His second best sighting was in the late 1960s, on the Atherton Tableland. It was just after dark, about half past 6 or a quarter to 7, at a distance of about 9 metres. The description was the same.
     He had an earlier sighting in 1949 in the Malaan country of the Atherton Tableland, near the South Johnstone River. He came over a bit of a knoll, and there was the big cat sitting there. When it spotted him, it took off down a granite gully. This was about half past 3 or 4, about a chain and a half [30 metres] away. It was also about the same size as the others. A few years later he was talking to a friend, who claimed to have seen a big striped cat in the road a couple of chains away in the same general area.
Comment: Considering the size, I am not prepared to rule out large feral cats, although I note that similar animals have not been reported from other parts of the country, as far as I know. In any case, and from other sources, it is clear that a definite tradition still exists in north Queensland of large, striped, catlike animals - which may or may not be the same as those reported in the early days of settlement.

     The next creature was definitely not a cat.
     On 25 October 1998 I gave an interview on the ABC about the north Queensland tiger. That inspired a witness to phone me the next day. He asked me to keep his name confidential, but he was a 56-year-old former professional hunter, who once owned 29 dogs, and was one of the few people with a permit to take both dogs and guns into national parks. He took issue with my statement that the north Queensland tiger was able to climb trees. The real north Queensland tiger was definitely restricted to the ground. His dogs had killed cats and the occasional spotted quoll in the past, and he told me that "tiger cats" were merely big feral cats with stripes on a grey background. This appears to be a local piece of wildlife folklore which could prove confusing.
     The event he described took place on a cold winter's night sometime in the 1960s, in the Mount Fox Range, west of Ingham, in what is now the Girringun National Park at approximately 18° S, 145½° E. The area is very mountainous, with many biomes. The actual site was next to a couple of miles of what he called "oak forest", although it was not a real oak, but an indigenous, rough-barked non-eucalypt 50 or 60 feet [15 - 18 m] high, with about 50% canopy cover. It was at a high altitude, cold and frosty, with a heavy fog.
     He was driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle with two passengers, and because of the fog was crawling along at about 10 m.p.h. (16 k.p.h.) with headlights and spotlights on. They had no fog lights. As they rounded a corner, they came face to face with two animals standing motionless in the middle of the road about 30 metres away. Thinking at first that they were dingoes, he got out of the vehicle and fetched his rifle. Then, as he got a better view, he said, "They're not dingoes." The animals and he gazed back at each other, and he even used the telescopic sights of his rifle, such that the first animal filled his view. They displayed a great reluctance to leave, and the way the front animal, a bitch, kept looking back towards the grassy roadside and making a noise like a spitting cat made him suspect they had a litter of pups nearby. Eventually, he approached the bitch. She opened her enormous jaws and spat at him, upon which he immediately retreated. Then the animals departed. The next day he related the story to a nearby friend, who was familiar with the animals, and called them, "Goldie".
     In describing them, he used the dingo as a baseline for comparison, but insisted they were nothing like dogs. The hindquarters, ears, and jaws were all very different. They were about the size of a slim cattle dog, or perhaps a bit bigger, and he estimated their weights at 40 - 50 lb [18 - 23 kg], which is about on par for a cattle dog. Although he could not speak for the individual in the rear, the front one was definitely female, with normal canine teats.
      The first thing he noticed about the coat was its beautiful golden colour, which he mentioned several times. It was made more attractive by the glistering dampness. Only towards the end of the interview did I ask about the coat pattern. They were beautifully striped with dark, vertical, slightly curved bands which went the whole length of the hindquarters but became shorter towards the shoulders. These stripes were quite distinct, unlike normal brindling.
      The ears were cat-like, not dog-like. The face was slightly rounded, not as short as a cat's, nor pointed like a dingo's, nor long like a normal dog's. It was more like a bull terrier's. When the bitch threatened him, her jaws appeared enormous, as if they had been hinged further back than on a dog's. Her teeth were typical of a dog or cat's.  The tail was long for a dog, but not bushy. It was rather skinny, like a doberman's, but nevertheless a typical canine tail. He did not notice whether they merged with the hindquarters, as with a thylacine. He did, however, volunteer the information that the hindquarters appeared much overdeveloped for a dog. The hind legs were very straight, rather like a bull terrier's.
Comment: This is the sort of sighting which immediately makes people cry "thylacine", or Tasmanian tiger. But it isn't. Despite the characteristic thylacine stripes and jaw gape, the give-away feature is the teats. These should be covered with a backwardly facing pouch. Unless he was seriously mistaken on the point, they must represent some sort of dog, albeit an unusual one. That they were apparently a mated pair adds to the identification. Just the same, it does seem strange that they both possessed the same coat pattern and general body shape. It is all very mysterious.

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