Thursday, 24 January 2013

Snarls from the Tea-tree: A Review

Snarls from the Tea-tree. Big Cat Folklore by David Waldron and Simon Townsend (2012), Australian Scholarly Publishing, available here.
     Several years ago, an envelope arrived at my former address, containing photographs of animals which gave every indication of having been killed by a big cat. A quick bit of research indicated that the sender, a certain Simon Townsend, was empoyed in the Victorian branch of the same government department as me. He was most surprised when I pointed it out. Since then, we have been retired, but he has kept up his interest in the topic, and has now collaborated with Dr David Waldron on a new book.
     This is about alien big cats in Victoria and the adjacent parts of South Australia. A couple of areas in other states are mentioned, but not Western Australia. Although the subject is of major concern for cryptozoology, it is not a regular cryptozoological book as such. You will not find a proposition, evidence, or a conclusion. Rather, it is a history and analysis of the phenomenon, and advice on dealing with it. There are 168 pages of text, eight photographs, four pages of index, and 400 end-notes, the greater part being of not-easily-assessible newspaper reports. Whatever else may be said about the book, it cannot be faulted for lack of documentation!

     Dr Waldron is a lecturer in history and anthropology at the University of Ballarat. Simon Townsend, as well as being a former public servant, is an ex-zookeeper, and a former researcher for Rare Fauna Research. Currently, he operates the website, Big Cats Victoria. Understandably, therefore, they approach the subject from two different perspectives. The first three chapters are by Dr Waldron.
    1. Monsters in the Scrub: the 19th Century. Most of those currently working in the field are aware of the situation only for the last few decades. Here, the author takes us back to the beginning, to the social situation: the alien nature of the Australian bush to the early settlers, the expectation of fauna similar to that of the Americas or Africa, and the final realisation of the truth. Then, in the second half of the century, came the acclimatisation societies, with their introduction of rabbits, deer, and foxes, and the proposed introduction of such animals as alpacas and monkeys, which somebody seriously suggested letting loose in the bush. At the same time, there was the virtually unrestricted importation of exotic animals for public and private menageries. (Have you heard about the 1859 case of "an escaped tiger on Little Bourke Street in Melbourne pursued by members of the Chinese community to the merriment of European onlookers"? [p19]). In South Australia in 1880s, there were constant references to stock killings by unknown predators, leading to the famous Tantanoola Tiger panic of 1892-5. It sounds like a three ring circus now, with widespread stock losses, the rumour of an escaped tiger, various colourful sightings, organised hunts, government action, and finally the killing of a large dog, believed to have been the ultimate cause. Even after that, some criminals decided to use the legend of a super-predator as a cover for widespread stock theft.
     2. Gippsland Panthers and Mascot Mayhem. Dr Waldron sees the Tantanoola Tiger as the beginning of a pattern involving the psychological aspect of the alien bush impinging on the cultivated lands, economic depression, and widespread stock losses leading to panics over alleged alien predators, each time culminating in the killing of a large, aberrant dog. He provides a long series of such panics, far too many to list here, mostly in Victoria, but also the Yengarrie Lion in Queensland. All this was against a backdrop of floods, Depression, stock losses, and war - the latter introducing a mania for military mascots. In fact, one returning troopship searched by Customs, was found to contain 1,650 (!) illegal animals on board, including a deer and a bear cub [p58].
     3. The Grampians Puma and the Otways Panther. This chapter brings the history up to date, and it is probably the only history known by current "big cat" investigators. The author strays out of Victoria to document the famous "Emmaville Panther" of New South Wales and, a quarter of a century after the event, solves the mystery of the lioness shot near Broken Hill in 1985. However, the main action remains in Victoria, with two trends coming to the fore. The first is the generally accepted origin myth of the alien big cats as pumas introduced as mascots by U.S. airmen. The other is the culture war between cryptozoology and official skeptical societies, which lumped it in with UFOs, fairies, clairvoyance, even religion - everything, in fact, which they didn't believe in, despite the very different natures of the phenomena in question. This was matched in the rural areas of Victoria in the division between true believers and true unbelievers, many of which had a strong emotional investment in a particular point of view. It also details the investigations by cryptozoological bodies, universities, and government bodies. Indeed, there is so much detail in this chapter that it is impossible to summarise it fully.

     As a folklorist, Dr Waldron is concerned with the development of patterns of belief in alien big cats, rather than the validity of these opinions. This is left to the second author, Simon Townsend.
     4. Cryptozoology: What's in a Name? This chapter is essentially an introduction to cryptozoology.
     5. Field Signs, Kills and DNA Testing. Here Mr Townsend provides an excellent review of the sort of evidence available, or potentially available, in the investigation of alleged alien big cats. From the discussion, and the endnotes, it is clear that he has done his homework exceedingly well. He delves into tracks, drag marks, territorial markings, denning sites, kills, and sightings and photographs, at all stages outlining the ambiguities of the evidence, and the known problems with eye witness testimony. From there, he discusses in detail the suspects, ranging from the least likely to the most banal. Finally, he discusses the techniques necessary for proper investigation. Notably, he proposes no solution, although he is sympathetic to the big cat hypothesis.

     Finally, there is a short concluding chapter by David Waldron.

     Minor Criticisms. The name of the father of cryptozoology, Dr Heuvelmans occasionally gets misspelled.   There is a really bad misspelling of the scientific name of the brush-tailed possum on p 133, and in chapter 3 there is a tendency for capital letters and full stops to drop out. Also, although when the second author cites zoological names, he correctly capitalises the generic name (the first name), the same cannot be said of the first author. This is a common mistake among non-biologists, but an inconsistency like this is a reflection on the editorial proof-reader.
     Of more substance, it might have been useful, in the discussion of footprints, to provide a few sketches to assist the reader. Also, although the citation of newspaper reports is voluminous, many of them were of local publications. Researchers wishing to follow them up would have found it useful to have the city/town of publication included in the citation. (That being said, I have been informed by Dr Waldron that all the documentation and evidence used by both authors has been made freely available at the Geoffroy Blainey Research Centre at the University of Ballarat library.)
     Who should read it? bearing in mind that Australian publications usually remain available for only two or three years before being remaindered? Well, since the subject is a major point of contention in rural Victoria, I think every rural library should stock it. Wildlife zoologists should definitely read it, if only to find out what people are saying. Also, because the book does not back any specific conclusion, they need not fear they are being "got at" by pseudo-scientists. Outside Victoria, those interested in crytozoology, or alien big cats in general, will also find it informative.
     Where to, next? It would be interesting to see a similar study performed on big cat lore in other parts of Australia, especially Western Australia, which was not included in the book. The social milieu behind big cat lore in the United Kingdom and the United States would also be of interest, because it is likely to be quite different to that of Australia.
     Gratitude is owed to my stepdaughter, Melissa and her husband, David for providing this book as a Christmas present.

Finally, since I still have your attention, can I interest you in a FREE book? A friend of mine has produced an e-book on her experiences with Australian wildlife, which I consider as good as Born Free or Ring of Bright Water. It can be read straight from her website, or downloaded from the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment