Friday, 12 December 2014

Thylacine Fever in the Wonthaggi District

     In my last post, I documented the "monster" which frequented the environs of the South Gippsland town of Wonthaggi in the years 1955 - 7, and for which I attempted to provide a mundane explanation. Of course, it didn't end there. No, I shan't impose upon you a transcript of the whole 86 additional photocopied pages - some bearing two separate articles - which my friend, Paul Cropper sent me. Sufficient it is to say that, on October 9, 1958 the same newspaper, the Wonthaggi Express announced the return of the monster. Then began a series of reports, all of which are consistent with rather large dogs, all different from the original "monster", and mostly from one another. But on December 18, 1962 something new was introduced: the witnesses claimed they had seen a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), a species which officially became extinct in Tasmania in 1936, and on the mainland about 3,000 years ago, with the arrival of the dingo. Gradually, but not immediately, this identification became more common, until the 1980s and 1990s, when it tended to be used indiscriminately and uncritically for most strange animal sightings.
     So, before we go any further, in my September post I documented a zoologist's investigations of very plausible thylacine sightings in North Queensland. I am also a contributor to a book shortly to be published, in which I document what I feel are some of the best "thylacine" sightings on the mainland. Nevertheless, the scope for misidentification is just so broad that I no longer take any notice of any report unless it is very, very detailed.
(c) Dr Laurie Corbett
     This is something which frequently gets mistaken for a dingo. It is a  brindle hybrid dingo, which represents about 3% of the dingo population. I took the photograph from The Dingo in Australia and Asia (1995, University of NSW Press) by Dr Laurie Corbett, who added: "In Victoria, sightings of similarly coloured animals sometimes give rise to the forlorn hope that thylacines still exist in the bush."
     Note that anybody who saw such an animal - often fleetingly and at a distance - could quite accurately state that there were stripes all the way from the neck to the rump. Journalists to whom the story is reported almost never ask about the shape of the stripes. Note that this specimen has a bushy tail - which is usual. However, a bit of mange, and possibly the breed of dog with which the hybridization occurred, can easily give the tail a nice, thylacine-like tubular appearance. Indeed, mange can produce all sorts of effects on the coat, allowing feral dogs and foxes to get in on the act as well.

Publicity photo for Beaumaris Zoo, 1915

       This is what thylacines are supposed to look like. The size is similar to that of a dingo or German shepherd dog, and the coat is short and sandy-coloured. Note particularly the stripes and hindquarters/tail. The stripes consist of 15 to 20 broad, dark, parallel bands from shoulder to tail, and are completely unbroken across the back, tapering to a point towards the abdomen. Only three other mammals wear a similar pattern: the banded hare wallaby, Lagostrophus fasciatus, now restricted to some offshore islands in Western Australia, a cat-sized carnivore from southeast Asia called the banded palm civet, Hemigalus derbyanus, and the zebra duiker, Cephalophus zebra, a miniature rainforest antelope from West Africa. Some species of bandicoots possess bands across the back, but not to this extent. As with other striped species, the thylacine displays individual variation with the stripes. Sometimes they are thin or absent on the shoulders, but they are always longest over the hindquarters, extending to the top of the thighs. There are also shadowy rings all the way down the tail, but they are normally invisible except when close up.
     As with a kangaroo, the hindquarters often taper into the kangaroo-like tail, which measures 50-60% of the head-body length. Although it is nowhere near as stiff as a kangaroo's, any tail which reaches over the owner's back, or which is bushy, definitely does not belong to a thylacine.
     Finally, although it will only rarely be seen, its jaws possess a very large gap, and it opens it wide like a yawn as a threat. No dog behaves like that.

Now for the reports
     The first one appeared in the Wonthaggi Express of Tuesday, 18 December 1962.
     Five people have seen a strange animal on the outskirts of Wonthaggi in the space of seven days. Mrs. Ron Williamson, of West Creek, saw it on her husband's farm on December 1. Two days later Mr. G. Mabila, of Kilcunda, saw it 500 yards from Mrs Williamson's sighting. Last Friday night three youths saw it three miles [5 km] away at East Wonthaggi. All describe it as a Tasmanian Tiger. The Tiger, almost extinct, was known to inhabit Australia.
     The boys, John Chisholm, 18; his brother, Darryl, 15; and Bill Coulton, 18, were driving along Berry's Rd. at 8.15 p.m. when the animal crossed 20 yards ahead. John Chisholm said: "I braked and swung the headlights towards it. It had a rabbit or a piglet in its mouth. It turned and raced back across the road. Its body was brown and striped. It was smaller than a cattle dog and had a very long tail which was bushy at the end."
 . . . . .
    The boys later checked an encyclopædia, and were convinced that they had seen a Tasmanian Tiger.
     But they hadn't, or else it wouldn't have had a bushy tail. One wonders what they saw when they looked at that encyclopædia. Also, if it was a thylacine and it was "smaller than a cattle dog", it couldn't have been fully grown.
     Mr. Mabila's animal was not described, except that he identified it as a Tasmanian tiger. However, Mrs. Williamson did provide a full description of what she saw at a distance of 20 yards in broad daylight.
     "I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING QUITE LIKE IT. I was fascinated by its tail, which was long and fluffy at the end. The animal was no bigger than a fox, though it certainly was NOT a fox. It was brown in color and had yellow stripes around its body."
     Which, I'll admit, doesn't sound much like a fox. However, a thylacine's tail is not fluffy at the end, and its stripes are dark, not yellow.

     When the next incident occurred at Almurta, 15 miles [24 km] from Wonthaggi, the journalist admitted that the animal was too big to be a thylacine, and one of the witnesses, Mr George Slater merely thought it was The Wonthaggi Monster. The sighting was at 5.45 pm at a distance of "two chains" or 40 metres, and was reported in the issue of December 27, 1962.
     "It was about 3-ft. 6-in. [107 cm] high, and about 4-ft. [122 cm] long. I have never seen anything like it before. It had a big head like a calf, and big, broad, round ears. Its head was dark brown and it had fawn stripes around its ribs."
     One presumes the length referred to the head and body in the absence of the tail, but many witnesses never make a distinction, and journalists never ask them for clarification. Another witness at another site, Mrs. Jim Caldwell said that her husband thought it was an Alsatian, but she felt it was much bigger.
     Then, on the 3 January 1963, the same Wonthaggi Express began an article with the sentence, "Five more people have seen a Tasmanian Tiger-like animal on the outskirts of Wonthaggi", and quoted a witness:
     "It was about 3-ft. [91 cm] high, 3-ft. 6-in. [107 cm] long, and had a striped body. It had a queer, square-shaped head and an extremely long tail that was bushy at the end."
     Which pretty much rules out a thylacine.

    After that, there were intermittent sightings of unusual animals, including one said to have had stripes. Then, on 2 December 1965, another newspaper, The Wonthaggi Sentinel got in on the act with the headline: "A Tasmanian tiger, they say." It turns out the witnesses were Mrs. Olive Cadwallender and Mrs Rae Haines, who were driving home to Wonthaggi, and happened to see it near Grantville about 10 pm, when visibility was further reduced by a light misty rain. According to Mrs. Cadwallender,
     "It was an animal as large as a dog, but with the characteristics of a cat. The two most striking features were its ambling gait, and its long, thick, striped tail.  . . . The tail intrigued me: it appeared to be almost the same size all of its full length. Rain on its fur made it difficult to distinguish, but the tail definitely carried stripes of a darker color than the rest of the body."
     Mrs Haines saw it for only two or three seconds, but she confirmed that it moved with a feline grace, and its most striking feature was the long striped tail. She was convinced it was a Tasmanian tiger. I'm not.

     Fast forward another 14 months, and we have the Sentinel of 25 January 1967 reporting another sighting of The Wonthaggi Monster, this time on top of a roof in Hagelthorn St, Wonthaggi. It transpires that 11-year-old Gaylene Bryden was spending the night at her grandmother's place, and
she looked out of her bedroom window, and saw the animal on a sloping hipped roof on the house of Mr. V. Jones, two doors away. She said it looked like an enormous cat, and had a long, heavy tail. It was raining at the time, and its wet coat appeared a greyish color, she added.
     She watched for about two minutes before it sprang down from the roof, at the same time making an unusual screeching noise. The same article carried the story of the killing of a goat, which may have had nothing to do with the case. Anyhow, neither dogs, dingoes, nor thylacines can climb onto roofs. As I have mentioned before, there are definitely big cats in Victoria, either oversized ferals or something more exotic. This appears to have been an early example. This leads us to what motorist, Eric Juckert saw near Grantville one day at 5.45 am, as recorded in the issue of 21 December 1967.
     "It was abreast with the car. When it noticed the car it turned with feline agility back into the scrub. That was when I noticed the tail - long, thick and bushy. The animal was the size of a small leopard, had a round face, stubby snout, pointed ears and, in the early morning light, appeared dark grey. The back legs were bigger than the front. It is a member of the cat family, though I have never seen anything like it previously."
     You can't get a better description of a big cat than that, can you? Yet his very next words were:
"From drawings I'd say it could be a Tasmanian Tiger".
     When you read a statement like that, how can you possibly trust anybody who says he identified an unknown animal as a thylacine? There are some people who see an animal, see a picture, put two and two together, and get whatever sum that suits them. (To be fair, future witnesses normally used the term, "panther".)

     We now must go forward more than three years to the issue of February 4, 1971
He's Back - again seen at Grantville
     The Tasmanian tiger like animal known as The Wonthaggi Monster has been seen again. Near Grantville, where five motorists saw it in November and December '68, and two in December '67.
     "If I hadn't been driving along the Bass Highway I'd have reckoned it was a tiger," Mrs Elsie Farr, 39, Houewife, of Latrobe Street, Waragul, said. "I was alone; it scared me. It was about 9.30 at night in a  storm. Opposite the GMH proving ground I saw two big orange eyes a hundred yards ahead on the right hand side, in the scrub. Then it crossed 20 yards ahead. It was about two feet high, a fawny grey with a tail, striped, unusually long and thick at the butt. It had an ugly head and a most peculiar gait. The gait was more feline than dog like. Its hair was medium length - neither short nor long."
     Please! Did it have stripes anywhere but on its tail?
     Next, we have the following report on June 10, 1971.
Everybody's seeing it!
     Mr and Mrs Norm Avage, of Turner Street, North Wonthaggi, saw The Wonthaggi Monster on the Bass Highway near Grantville at 11 pm last Monday. "He's no monster; he's a Tasmanian tiger," Mrs Avage said. "He was eating a dead rabbit, and Norm drove around him to avoid him. He just ambled away, unconcerned. It was a tiger all right - bigger than a fox, striped, dirty coloured coat and long, pointed tail."
     There have been several sightings in recent years of a Tasmanian tiger like animal where the Avages saw it - half a mile the Bass side of the Corinella turn-off.
     To be fair, this is a reasonable sighting. If thylacines were known to be in the area, it would have been identified as such. If it had happened in Tasmania, the zoological authorities would have taken it seriously. However, they would have requested a lot more details than the ones which satisfied the journalist. I cannot rule out some sort of dingo or dog.

     Fast forward seven years, and on Thursday, 3 August 1978 The Wonthaggi Sentinel told of the experience of a 36-year-old painter, Bob Phillips and his wife, Nola the previous Thursday.
     Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were driving from Wonthaggi to Inverloch about 2 p.m. They went via The Cape [Paterson] because their son Brad, 3, likes to look at the sea.
     Mr. Phillips said: "About 150 metres past the turn-off to Inverloch, the animal came trotting towards us, on the same side as us, 50 metres away. Nola said: 'Is that a fox?' Head-on it looked like a fox, but it was the wrong color; it was tawny. It saw the car and turned off to the left when we were 20 metres away. That was when we noticed the long tail, stiff like a stick. It had dark stripes over its rump, and a graceful gait."
     They checked a book, and Mrs Phillips declared it was definitely a Tasmanian tiger.

     That wasn't the end of it that year. On Monday, 21 September 1978 the same newspaper carried a report of the sighting by Mary Mabila, 50 and her daughter, Irene Walsh just outside of Wonthaggi. Immediately on arriving home, Mrs Mabila checked an animal book and recognized it as a Tasmanian tiger. "It had dark stripes and a long, thick, stiff tail," she said.

     In 1980 it turned up again, according to the report of 23 January 1980.
'Tiger' seen again at proving ground
     A Tasmanian tiger has been again seen outside the GMH proving ground near Lang Lang. It was seen at 7.30 a.m. on January 3 by Mrs. Jim Brewster of Grantville. Mrs. Brewster, cook at a youth camp in Almurta-rd, was driving to Melbourne alone.
     Mrs. Brewster said she was only 20-30 yards from the animal. "It was bigger than a fox, heavier than a dingo, had stripes on its back. The tail was thick at the butt and tapered. The hind legs were like a roo's."
     To give her credit, that's a reasonable description of a thylacine. A few months later, we have the following report, this time from the Foster Mirror of 2 April 1980.
Another Tasmanian tiger seen locally
     Three young Meeniyan men saw an animal they believe to be a Tasmanian tiger, about a kilometre north of Foster township last Thursday night. The men saw the animal cross the highway just above Mr. Hamish Garrow's farmhouse, at about midnight. The men, Phil and Ian Benson, and Garry Gillett, were returning from basketball finals at Foster. The Benson brothers had been umpiring some of the matches.
     Mr. Phil Benson told The Mirror, "We saw the animal in the big cutting just past Mr. Garrow's house. At first I thought it was a fox, but its eyes did not glow red in the lights, and I knew then it wasn't a fox. We got a good look at the animal as we got closer. It was grey in colour, had a head like a hyena, the hind legs sloped back, and the thick tail tapered to a point. The hips and tail had darker bands with the grey colouring."
     Next, back to The Sentinel Times of 7 July, probably 1980, which described how storekeeper, Don Nolte saw an animal in the middle of Eden's road, Kernot the previous Wednesday morning.
     He said he stopped his car and watched it for 10 minutes, between 10.45 and 11.55. "I was within 20 feet of him, and too close to have made a mistake," Mr Nolte said. He described the animal as having distinct stripes and a stiff, stick-like tail. "It wasn't fully grown and it did not move until I got out of the car to try and get an even closer look," he said.
     Actually, this is quite a good sighting. But I would have preferred a lot more details. We now have to move forward 6½ years. On 23 December 1986 The Mirror of Foster carried an article entitled, "Tasmanian Tiger seen at Hedley". It walked across the road in front of the vehicle of Cr. Jan Mildenall and Mark Nicholls about 7.40 am the previous Friday. According to Cr. Mildenhall,
     "It was about the size of a fox, but had a long tail sticking straight out behind it, with a lean body and what appeared to be ginger and darker stripes on the body."
     That's all. It's surprising how so many of these "thylacines" are solitary, half-grown animals, because a real thylacine is much bigger than a fox. It is far more likely that it was a fox, with its tail denuded by mange, and with "stripes" produced in the same manner.

     The following report is much better. Indeed, it would have had zoologists salivating if it had taken place in Tasmania. It comes from the South Gippsland Sentinel Times of Wonthaggi, dated Wednesday, 11 March 1987.
Strange animal seen at Woolamai
     A mail contractor watched a strange animal, 10 metres away, for 2½ minutes at Woolamai last Wednesday. Rose Bristow, of Broome crescent, Wonthaggi, said she had never seen anything like it. "Because it was so unusual, I took great care to note that it was
* too big for a fox and smaller than a kelpie,
* it had a peculiar head, dark stripes from the shoulder to the loin, and was a sandy sable color.
* the tail was thick, heavy and unfurred.
'Canine'   Its movement s were feline, but it was a member of the dog family.
   It was in excellent condition, and young. I did not notice whether it was a dog or a bitch"
   Mrs Bristow has bred and shown dogs for 40 years.
   Shown a photograph of a Tasmanian tiger, she said: "That's what it was."
   Mrs Bristow saw the animal cross Trew's road ahead of her car at 11 am.
Stood still   She slowed to a stop, and studied the animal as it stood on the other side of the road.
   "Its ears were erect and it was sniffing the air.
   "After watching it for a while I got out of the car. It got scent of me, and hurried back to the scrub near Pomfret's road, from which it had come.
   "I saw something similar in the same place 2-3 months ago, but it was not a very good. [sic]"
   The locality is a square kilometre of trees and scrub in cleared dairying country.
      Interestingly enough, something similar turned up in the same locality a year later, for on 1st March 1988 the same newspaper carried a report about a farmer's wife of Woolamai, Ann Francis, aged 40 seeing a strange animal cross the road in the township itself from the church to the pine plantation.
"I particularly noticed the dark stripes on the ginger coat. The stripes lengthened as they reached its rump. When it took off it carried its very long tail stiffly."
     Fast forward almost three years, and we have The Star (Leongatha) of 4 December 1990 reporting two more "tiger" sightings, but the details were so meagre that it is hard to come to any conclusion, except that the witnesses all claimed they looked like Tasmanian tigers. The following week, Tuesday 11 December 1990, the same newspaper published a short report of a "thylacine" seen by a Mr. Colin Watson near Leongatha the previous Wednesday at 5.45 pm.
"The animal had yellow stripes right down its back and it was far too long in the body to be a domestic animal," he said.
     Yellow stripes? I thought a thylacine's stripes were supposed to be black.

     On 5 January 1993 the South Gippsland Sentinel Times of Wonthaggi came out with another sighting of a "Tasmanian tiger" by an anonymous resident of Poowong. He watched it through binoculars in an adjoining paddock about 8 a.m. one day.
     "It was certainly not a dog or a fox. It was grey, brown in color, more grey than brown, and had a long thin tail, thick at the butt and tapering to a point," the man said. He said its ears were similar in shape to a dingo's.
     Doesn't it strike you as a reflection on the standard of journalism in Wonthaggi that a journalist can call an animal without stripes a "Tasmanian tiger"? Tom Gannon was the name of the journalist who wrote another article in the same newspaper on Tuesday 9 November 1993 headed: "Strange animal seen; like Tasmanian tiger". Lou Caille, 61 was drivng down the Inverloch-Leongatha about 8.15 a.m. on Melbourne Cup day, when it crossed the road 200 metres ahead of them.
     "It was dark tan, a member of the dog family, but not like any dog I have ever seen. It was a bit like a fox with the mange, but taller, and had a sloping back. I was taken by its unusual gait ... and then its long, pig-like snout."
     The female front seat passenger said: " . . . It was brown, very thin, had short hair, and a very long, stiff tail."
     If it had no stripes, and looked "a bit like a fox with the mange", perhaps it really was a fox with the mange.
     Exactly a week later (16 November 1993) the same newspaper carried an article with the heading, "Lair of a Thylacine?" It turned out that two women had been driving along the Leongatha-Wonthaggi Rd the previous Friday in the early afternoon when they passed by the side of the road an animal which they at first thought was a mangy fox. However, when they got closer, it was noticed that it was a healthy-looking animal about the height of a blue heeler, with tan coloured short hair. However, there were black markings, or stripes, among the tan hair towards the back, and it sloped down at the tail. As they passed it, she watched it through the rear vision mirror, and noted that the stripes were present on the other side as well. For that reason, she did not think it was a mangy fox. The second woman saw the animal head-on, and so missed the stripes, but she did notice a thin, stiff tail sticking out straight behind.
     The two women were happy to provide their names for publication, until they were told of another sighting. Mrs Irene Taylor had been travelling down the same road about 5.45 pm that same day, when she saw a thylacine-like creature walk across the road into long grass. However, she backed the car up and happened to find the animal lying in the grass. It was obviously a sick fox, with all the hair missing from the rear half of its body, and with its tail long, skinny, and hairless. She said that if  she hadn't stopped, she would have gone home convinced she had seen something exotic.
     In the face of this, the two women decided to remain anonymous, but they stuck to their guns. They had seen a photo of a stuffed thylacine in the South Australian Museum, and it was identical to what they had seen. (It should be noted that "their" animal was much smaller than a real thylacine.)

     From all of this, you will perhaps realise why I am highly sceptical about mainland thylacine sightings. Nevertheless, they bother me more than very exotic mysteries such as alien big cats and yowies, because there appear to be some grains of wheat among all that chaff. However, if you are a journalist, and someone reports such a sighting, please exercise your professional skills and ask for more details. Check the page at the top of this blog entitled, "How to Report a Sighting". Do it now. And even if you are not a journalist, please read it, in case you are lucky enough to see one yourself.
     One other point needs to be made. There happen to be institutions called museums. The curators are well informed on the wildlife known from the area, and are always eager to learn whether a species is present outside its known range. In other words, if you do see something unusual, and it is common in the area, the Curator of Mammals will be able to identify it, and if it isn't, he will be delighted to hear about it. It is best to contact him before running off to the local press. I say this in the lead-up to the following undated, unsourced news clipping, which Paul Cropper thinks may date from 1962.
     First it was strange lights . . . now it is strange animals. A small animal vaguely resembling a fox, but a lot smaller and quite a bit faster, was seen near Poowong on Monday morning. Local school bus operator, Geoff Gascoyne, was the first to see the animal. He was beginning his morning run and heading out the Poowong North road when he came across the little creature. Brown in color, with a head like a pig, and short tail, he estimated it to be less than two feet long and under a foot high. It allowed two cattle dogs to get quite close then took off. After a sprint up the road, it cleared a seven feet [2.1 metres] embankment beside the road and went through a fence into the property of Mr. Len Standfield.
     Geoff was not game to tell a soul. Then Len Standfield said: "I saw it too."
     From a distance of about 200 yards Len saw the small animal run through his paddocks and out of sight over a hill. Len Standfield has paced his cattle dogs at 35 miles per hour [56 kph] in his car. He reckoned the little animal had at least another 10 miles per hour [16 kph] more speed than the dogs. "It just left them for dead," he said yesterday.
     He doubts very much that the animal was a fox. It was too fast for a fox, and its gait was more of a leap than a run . . . with its hind legs coming right through to its nose. Neither dogs nor foxes move in this manner; he said. Len's dogs have caught foxes before, but could not get near this one. It was bigger than a fox terrier, said Len . . . who feels that it may have been a cross-bred dog, with a bit of whippet for [end of clipping].
     This reminds me of the time I was at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary studying for my M.Sc. Some American visitors told me they had seen a coatimundi run across the road the previous night. "That's impossible!" I said, knowing that coatimundis or coatis are a group of species related to the raccoon, which live only in South and Central America and the southwest U.S.A. However, they stuck to their guns. I then showed them around the sanctuary, and when we came to the common brushtailed possum, the woman exclaimed: "That's what we saw!"
     Getting back to the Poowong beast and allowing for a bit of misidentification, the description is consistent with some sort of bandicoot. From its size, I'd guess a large male Perameles nasuta. But it must have been running jolly fast.

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