Monday, 20 October 2014

The Wonthaggi "Monster"

     Of all those researching mystery animals in Australia, none is more energetic, or more generous, than my friend, Paul Cropper, the co-author of Out of the Shadows and The Yowie. In 1998 he sent me, out of the blue, a package of 106 - yes, 106! - photocopies of newspaper reports, covering 34 years, concerning the "Wonthaggi Beast". Anyone who has ever tried it will appreciate how tedious and time consuming such a task would be - especially with regional newspapers in a different state to his own. (Wonthaggi is a town in east Gippsland, 132 km southeast of Melbourne, at 38° 36'S, 145° 34'E.)
     Paul is a busy man, with not enough disposable time to publish it all on the internet. I, on the other hand, have more time, but to publish the whole 106 articles would merely bore the reader without edifying him. However, as a tribute to my friend, and for your edification, I shall publish the initial, most informative reports, along with the later ones which show some promise. It will also be interesting to note how public perceptions changed over the decades.
    These reports are all from the now defunct Wonthaggi Express.

Thursday, December 1st, 1955
What Was Up That Tree?
     A strange animal with a "blood-curdling yell," startled Fred Rollason, marine dealer, Inverloch Rd., Wonthaggi, and Mrs. Sturgess, at 7.30 a.m. Monday morning.
     "And I hadn't been drinking," laughed Mrs. Sturgess, yesterday. "It was up a tree, big as a dog, large claws, large head, furry body, striped like a Zebra, and a long tail. When I heard the yell, I thought it was children looking for a lost calf. When it saw me it sprang 15-ft. to the ground and disappeared. I've seen goannas, wild cats and foxes, but was none of them."
     Asked if the animal resembled a tiger, Mrs. Sturgess said, "More like anything I can think of. I didn't get a long look at it."
    A circus passed through Wonthaggi last month, but did not report any missing animals. Mr. Crosbie Morrison said last night:
     Apart from the fact that the animal is described as having stripes, it sounds like the greater possum glider. This is a rather rare animal now, and normally comes out only at night. But this one probably went to bed late. The possum glider does not have stripes. However, the shadows of the branches of the tree might quite easily look as if it had stripes. If Mrs. Sturgess insisted that the animal really had stripes it may be a domestic cat gone wild. Some of these are enormous.

Thursday, December 8, 1955
     Searchers will gather at 18 Shaft, Inverloch Road, Wonthaggi, on Sunday afternoon for an all-out drive to locate Wonthaggi's monster. A belt of country a mile wide and three miles long will be searched.
     Mr. and Mrs. T. Schmedje and Mr. Ern Featherstone saw it loping along the Inverloch Road on Tuesday morning. Mr. Featherstone, a car salesman, and member of the party which searched for the animal last Sunday, said, "I was demonstrating a car to Mr. and Mrs. Schmedje when it hopped out of the scrub in front of us. It ran along the side of the road, disappeared into some scrub, and when we stopped where it disappeared, it was looking at us. I've never seen anything like it; It was brown, striped, had a sleek coat, extremely long tail, and got along with a peculiar bound. It was about 2-ft. 6 in. [76 cm] high, 5-ft. [152 cm] long, and had a tail as long as it's body. The tail was 2-in. [5 cm] at the butt, thick all the way to the end, where it curled."
     Mr. Schmedje said, "It reminded me of a hyena with a tail. It got along like a wallaby does when moving on all fours. It was not a wallaby, of course. It had a fox-like head and long nose."
     An immediate search failed to locate the animal. A search by two car-loads of men with dogs on Tuesday evening was also unsuccessful. The point where the carload saw the animal is 500 yards from where it was sighted last week, and a mile [1.6 km] from the Wonthaggi P.O.
     Mr. Jim Drodge, an English migrant, first saw the animal eight months ago. He saw it a mile from where it frightened Mrs. Sturgess last week. Mrs. Sturgess said it was as "big as a dog, had long claws, big head, furry body, and striped like a zebra."
Tiger stripes
     He said, "It was standing in ferns 15 yards away looking at me. It had ugly tiger-stripes across its face. When I stopped it turned and made off, padding like a panther. It was as big as a Labrador, but it lacked a feline look."
     Cyril Maurier, who share-farmed for Mr. W. Honey, saw it twice two months later. It reared up at him, but made off when he approached.
     Whatever the animal is, it has does no harm. Sheep and pigs have not been molested.
[Section missing] live 500 yards from where the animal was seen on Tuesday, are satisfied they heard it three months ago. They bolted the door of their home when a strange animal set up a blood-curdling scream. Mr F. Robinson, who heard the animal last week, carries a shotgun when he goes into the stunted timber near his home.
     On Sunday afternoon, a party made a vain search, led by Jack ("Paddy") Brennocks, of "The Swamp Lady" search. "This one has me baffled," said Brennocks, who expressed the opinion that in view of the rarity with which the animal is seen, a daylight search is not likely to prove successful. He feels that a night search with spotlights would be more successful.
Don't shoot
     The shyness of the animal and the length of time that it has been in the vicinity, and done no damage, suggests that it is not dangerous. It would be a matter of regret if it were shot when [missing]
Crosbie says cat
     Mr. Crosbie Morrison, wild life expert, believes "The Animal" might be a very large "gone wild" domestic cat or a very large dog.
    "Later information eliminates the possum-glider. Two possibilities now fit the facts. One is that it is a very large 'gone wild' domestic cat; the other is that more than one creature has contributed to the sum of evidence, in which case it is likely to be a very large dog (like the notorious Tantanoola tiger of years ago) with a wild cat providing the tree-jumping part of the story, and one of the shriek-owls or even an old koala contributing to the noise."

     Another report on the same date indicated that the only animals seen by the search party were a wallaby, fox, two hares, three cats and six rabbits. Then came the following:

Thursday, December 15, 1955
The Animal Has Been Seen Again
     Wonthaggi's mystery animal has been seen again. It was sighted by John Longstaff, 18, drill-hand, on Sharrock's property, near Kirrak mine at 5.45 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Longstaff first noticed it hopping along 20 yards in front of the truck he was driving across a paddock.
     He said, "It froze like a rabbit, so I stopped the truck, grabbed a crowbar, and walked up to it. I got to within 15-ft [4½ metres]. Then it ran on another 20 yards and stopped, and though I did not take my eyes off it, it vanished in only a foot of grass. I've never seen anything quite like it. I'd say it was a cross between a wallaby and a fox - if that were possible. It certainly had the short front legs that other people have spoken of, was brown, and had the stripes across the nose, head, and neck, and was 2-ft [60 cm] high and 4-ft. long [120 cm]."
     Longstaff's description tallies with that given by three adults who saw the animal in the same area last week. A search last Sunday failed to locate the animal.

     The following week there was an article in which a number of animals expressed their amateurish and extremely varied attempts at identification. After that came:

Wednesday, December 21, 1955
Everybody's seeing it now!
     Three more people have seen Wonthaggi's mystery animal. They are Constable N. Poulter and Mrs. Poulter, Wonthaggi, and Mr. C. Wyeth, Inverloch. Mr. and Mrs. Poulter saw it near Mr. J. N. Moole's property, Inverloch Road, Wonthaggi. Mr Wyeth saw it at the 18 Shaft corner, half a mile away.
     Mr. Poulter said the animal was light fawn, had short hair, a fox-like head, looked like a big dog, had an unusually long tail, and a body about 3-ft [90 cm] long. "It got along with the same odd gait that other people have spoken of," added Mr. Poulter. Mr. Poulter, 100 yards away when the animal crossed the road, searched for it in the small, low patch of scrub into which it disappeared.
     Mr. Wyeth saw the animal at 5.30 a.m. the following morning. Though 200 yards away he was able to identify it as an animal of a kind he has never previously seen. He particularly noted the peculiar gait and long tail.

Thursday, February 2, 1956
"Our" monster gone walkabout?
Is the Wonthaggi Monster at Mirboo North?
    It hasn't been sighted near Wonthaggi for eight weeks. An animal befitting its description was seen near Mirboo North last Sunday by Mr. McCracken, a Woodend visitor. He was driving his car when he saw an animal, "the likes of which I have never seen before, stalk two bronze-wing pigeons in a cat-like fashion, across the road. It was a mottled grey in color, and had a head like a wombat."
    McCracken said it was about 5-ft. long [1.5 metres] long, with a tail as long as its body. It disappeared in thick scrub when McCracken stopped to have a closer look.

     Mirboo North is a small town approximately 55 km in a direct line northwest of Wonthaggi. After that, events took an interesting turn in Wonthaggi.

Saturday, June 2, 1956
Trap set for The Monster
     A trap is to be set for the elusive Wonthaggi "Monster". A 20-ft [6 m] area around a dead sheep is to be dotted with traps.
     "With an ounce of luck it will clean up the mystery once and for all," said Mr. E. Featherston, Wonthaggi, yesterday.
     Mr. Featherston has organized an armed band of searchers to beat "The Monster's" haunts, next Sunday. The traps will be set around the pegged carcass on the next sheep to die on Mr. P. Atkinson's property, Lance Creek. Over a short period of late, seven sheep have been dragged 200 yards and devoured overnight.

Thursday, June 14, 1956
The Animal's about again
     Wonthaggi's mysterious animal is about again. It hasn't been seen this time, but is blamed for carrying off sheep in a paddock where trees bear strange claw-marks. "The tree marks were made by no ordinary animal," said Mr. Peter Atkinson, on whose farm the trees are situate[d].
     Mr. Atkinson's property, on Old Outtrim Road, Wonthaggi, is about 2½ miles [4 km] from the Kirrak Shaft area where the animal has been seen a dozen times. Mr. Atkinson adds, "In both instances there are claw-marks four feet [120 cm] from the ground where an animal has sprung up a tree. Eighteen inches [46 cm] apart, they are followed by other sets at 3-ft [92 cm] intervals until a fork is reached."
     [The first time the animal was even seen it leapt from a tree to the ground 8-ft below.]
     Mr. A. Keay, mechanic, Wonthaggi, says a powerful-clawed animal has climbed the trees. One has its bark torn, where an animal slipped on climbing. In heavy ti-tree nearby, a large animal's lair was discovered.
Eats sheep overnight
     Mr. Atkinson adds, "I had an open mind on The Animal until this. But on seven occasions now, dead, poisoned, 50-lb [22½ kg] sheep have been dragged 200 yards and completely eaten over-night. The appetites of half a dozen foxes wouldn't run to eating a sheep over-night. Neither would their combined strength enable them to drag a sheep 200 yards. In any case there aren't many foxes about. I've poisoned only three."

    You will notice that (a) the animal has been eating poisoned meat, and (b) investigative reporting appears to have been rare in Wonthaggi at the time. The journalists seem to have requested no more information from the witnesses than what they actually volunteered. Also, no-one asked to see the claw marks. Then, on June 28 the paper reported how a reporter, a photographer, and the inimitable Mss Atkinson and Featherston, along with a hunting dog, chased the "monster" through tea tree scrub. However, since they caught only a fleeting glimpse, the report was useless. Next to it they published Mr Featherston's whimsical drawing of the beast. You will notice that it doesn't actually coincide with what he originally described.
Thursday, July 5, 1956
Footprints: Sheep Eaten
    Three-inch [7½ cm] paw prints were seen in soft ground at Mr. W. Honey's farm, Wonthaggi, on Monday morning. They were seen by Mrs. W. Honey. They are thought to be The Wonthaggi Monster's. A 30-lb [13½ kg] Kelpie accompanying Mrs. Honey left no marks on the same soft ground. Mrs. Honey said the imprints were most definite and clearly showed four claws and three pads.
     Jim Dodge, an English migrant, saw The Monster on Mr. Honey's farm last year. He said, "It was standing in ferns 15 yards from me. It ... had ugly tiger stripes across its face. When I stopped it turned and made off, padding like a panther. It was as big as a labrador, but lacked a feline look."
     Cyril Maurier, who also share-farmed for Mr. Honey, saw it twice two months later. It reared up at him, but made off when he approached. Mr. Maurier got such a fright that thereafter he took a rifle whenever he was alone in the bush.
      Yesterday Mr. Honey said, "I was inclined to treat the matter lightly until I saw those footprints on Monday morning."
      On Sunday night, 500 yards from where the footprints were seen, Mr. A. J. Moyle had a sheep dragged 200 yards and eaten overnight. The dragging of the sheep such a long distance and its complete devouring is identical with what occurred on Mr. P. Atkinson's property, Old Outrim Road, North Wonthaggi, seven times last month. In each instance Mr. Atkinson's sheep were dead and consumed.
      Mr. Moyle is unable to say whether his sheep was dead before it was carried off. He had not inspected the sheep for a fortnight. He feels that the sheep would have been alive. There has never yet been a definite instance of The Monster killing a live animal. Mr. Moyle discounts the possibility of town dogs eating the sheep. "Dogs have killed my sheep, but never dragged one away and eaten it," he said last night.
     Mr. E. Featherstone, car salesman, Wonthaggi, has organized a search for The Monster next Sunday. The search party leaves South Gippsland Motors at 10 a.m.

Thurday, July 12, 1956
THE MONSTER: he's eating dogs and foxes!
     You can't keep a good Mon(ster) down! Since last week's headlines, The Wonthaggi Monster has devoured a dog and three foxes. The dog was shot by Mr. A. J. Moyle (J. P. !) as it ate the leg of a live lamb, caught in a fence. When Mr. Moyle returned next day to bury the dog, he couldn't find it. A search unearthed it, 200 yards away, completely eaten except for a few tufts of hair. Bones and all were eaten.
     Like others who have either seen The Monster or his work, Mr. Moyle confesses, "I was inclined to treat The Monster as a bit of a joke until this happened."
     The same thing was happened on Mr. P. Atkinson's property, Old Outrim Rd., Wonthaggi. Foxes, poisoned and left to rot, have disappeared over-night. All that remained next day were a few whisks of brown fur. Like the seven dead, poisoned sheep on Mr. Atkinson's property, the foxes remains were found a couple of hundred yards from the carcass's original resting place.
     A hunt with bloodhounds provided by Mr. D. Mummery, storekeeper, Tarwin Lower, has been organized for next Sunday week. The party, led by Mr. E. Featherstone, leaves South Gippsland Motors at 10 a.m.

     After that, things started to get amusing. The issue of Thursday, July 19, 1956 carried an article about how a bloodhound had been brought in to search for the monster. It also added the following poem:
     In days of old, when knights were bold,
          They buckled on big suits of tin,
     With sturdy steed and trusty sword,
           They sallied forth renown to win,
      And dragons fierce, with fiery breath,
           They battled in a fight to death.
      The modern hunter oils his gun,
            Invites his mate to join the fun,
      Rounds up his dogs, and starts his car,
           To seek The Monster, near and far,
      A Monster with a three-inch paw,
           With tiger stripes and dog-like jaw,
      Who dines by night on poisoned bait,
            He's dragged for yards - despite the weight.
       He chews the bones, spits out the hair,
            Then slinks in silence to his lair.
       His hunters walk the whole day through,
             And all they see is an old man 'roo.

Thursday, July 26, 1956
The Monster seen again
    The Wonthaggi Monster has been seen again. This time on the Inverloch-Cape Paterson Road.
    "I'd hate to tangle with him," declared Mr.W. Honey, Geelong, afterwards. Mr. Honey and Mr. Arthur Lalor, retired miner, Reed Cres., Wonthaggi, were a mile from Cape Paterson, when they saw The Monster.
     Mr Lalor said yesterday, "I think the car disturbed him. He appeared to come from down near the cliff-face, and as he crossed open ground before disappearing into scrub we had a wonderful view. We stopped the car, and wound down the windows. He was about 120 yards away. Big as a big calf, and brown like a calf, he had the stripes, unusually long tail and peculiar gait attributed to The Monster. I remember saying to Mr. Honey, 'Look at that!' ... he replied, 'Gosh, it's The Monster.'
     I said, 'Well, you'll be able to go back to Geelong now and tell 'em we're not liars up this way'."
     Mr. Honey, who has since returned to Geelong, said before leaving, "Previously I regarded The Monster as a joke. But not now. I'd hate to tangle with him."
     Mr Honey said he could readily understand The Monster's eating a calf or sheep overnight. He added, "It is a big animal, and could travel long distances."
     The country were the latest sighting was made is desolate. A mile away, 12 months ago, the first two sightings occurred. Three-inch paw marks were seen in soft ground on the farm of Mr. Honey's son, two miles North, on Monday July 2.
     Word of the men's experience did not reach Wonthaggi until two hours later - ... on Monday afternoon. Approaching darkness stopped Mr. D. Mummery, of Tarwin Lower, being contacted to put a bloodhound on the trail. Overnight rain washed out a search next day. Rain also washed out a search last Sunday.

     On August 2, 1956 the paper announced a reward of £50 for The Wonthaggi Monster, dead or alive - an offer open until the end of the year. From my memory, that would be about three weeks' wages for a labourer. On August 9 it was increased by £20, with a farmer throwing in an extra £5. On Thursday, 31 January 1957 the same newspaper reported that The Monster had been caught by the local milkman, who had it stuffed and was charging 1/- to view it. Unfortunately, the readers hadn't noticed that the article was headed, "Stories We Would Like to Write In 1957", so on February 7 they were forced to publish a letter by the said milkman complaining about the hordes of people coming to view it, along with a apology by the newspaper for the mistake. The paper never did get a chance to write that report. However...

Saturday, July 13, 1957
"Never seen anything quite like it"
     The Monster has been seen again. Seen by Mr. W. Pedrotti, or Inverloch Road, Wonthaggi. Mr. Pedrotti saw it near Western Area coal mine, last week. He and a New Australian were clearing scrub from a drain when Mr. Pedrotti looked up, and noticed a peculiar animal trotting after a heifer, 60 yards away. Mr. Pedrotti let out a yell to frighten the animal. It made off, and was immediately obscured from Mr. Pedrotti's view by scrub. Mr. Pedrotti hurried to a gap in the scrub, but could see no sign of the animal.
     Yesterday Mr. Pedrotti recalled, "I did not get a very good look at the animal. But I saw enough to say that I have never seen anything like it in my life . . . and I've spent a lot of time in the bush. It was calf-like in color, but it was not a calf. I can only conclude that it was the animal known as The Monster.

Thursday, July 25, 1957
The Monster Sighted at Pound Creek
     The Wonthaggi Monster has been seen again. It was seen at Pound Creek on Monday by Mr. Lloyd Beard, a farmer.
     "I had a wonderful view of him," recalled Mr. Beard, yesterday. "It was The Monster without a doubt. It was eating a dead sheep. It was a red color, had the long tail and peculiar gait of The Wonthaggi Monster. It was no fox. I hurried to get at gun, but The Monster was gone when I got back."
      Mr. Beard's nephew, Mr. Harry Beard, of North Wonthaggi, and Mr. Henry Tipping, of Inverloch, unsuccessfully searched the locality for The Monster on Monday night. Six weeks ago two spot-light shooters saw The Monster two miles from where Mr. Beard saw it.
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     And that, as far as I can ascertain, was the last time anyone spotted the original Wonthaggi Monster. What was it? Or perhaps, what were they? - for it is possible that more than one animal contributed to the saga. The fact that it hasn't been seen since would suggest that there was no breeding population of a hitherto undetected species. So let us apply Occam's razor: if you hear hoofbeats, assume horses rather than zebras.
     My experience is that "flaps" or "crazes" follow a pattern. First, some brave soul reports something he or she can't explain. This emboldens others to come forth. As the craze develops, the witnesses become less and less critical. They start to see what they expect to see, and misinterpret commonplace animals. The odd tall story also tends to creep in. However, the report that starts the craze is unlikely to be a hoax.
    The fact that the initial "monster" was seen up a tree rules out any sort of dog. As I pointed out in an earlier post, feral cats are known to reach the size of foxes. It is pretty certain that there are bigger ones. The huge black cat shot by Kurt Engels in 2005 was proved by hair and DNA analysis to be a feral domestic cat. While I have reason to doubt that it was quite as large as he claimed (as big as a small adult leopard), it was certainly abnormally large. Moreover, in their book, Australian Big Cats, Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang provide evidence, with photos of pelts, of black cats in the lower size range of dingoes. Why they should be black or, occasionally, tan coloured is anyone's guess, but it would be surprising if the most common feral cat coat pattern, striped tabby, failed to turn up among the giants.
     Have a look at these photos of domestic moggies. If one of these appeared in a giant size, do you think it would be described as "striped like a Zebra"? Mind you, most people are familiar with cats. If two witnesses happened to see a cat as big as a dog in clear daylight, in the early morning, at a distance close enough to cause the animal to flee, wouldn't they be more likely to call it simply, "a cat as big as a dog"? But, in any case, it is the equivalent of a horse rather than a zebra.
     The blood curdling cries (which were only reported a couple of times) probably really were produced by owls. Indeed, the barking owl, Ninox connivens is sometimes called the "screaming woman bird". The claw marks reported on 14 June 1956 certainly sound like they were made by a big cat. Also, the habit of dragging the prey away and consuming it in private sound more like the behaviour of a cat than a dog, although I wouldn't want to be dogmatic about it. Big cats of a black or a tan colour certainly exist in Victoria. Whether they are gigantic ferals, or something more exotic (Simon Townsend tells me that leopard DNA was identified in one scat), is something we may puzzle about. The one seen at Mairboo North, for instance, sounds like a very good example of this. However, if the one hanging around Wonthaggi, leaving claw prints on trees, was the same as the striped one originally reported, that would leave us with just one mystery feline rather than two.
     The animals seen on the ground were definitely not cats. This is established by oft-reported long, canine face. When faced with reports of mystery carnivores, the first assumption is a dog - with which I include dingoes and dingo-dog hybrids. In fact, there is a long history of "tiger" and "lion" crazes involving stock losses, being finally settled by the killing of an extra large dog. The multiplicity of breeds produce a veritable kaleidoscope of confusing features. Bizarre coat patterns are often the result of mange. About 7% of Victorian dingoes are brindled ie with a broken pattern of irregular stripes. The typical dog face is long, but there are short-faced breeds. The ancestral tail was bushy, but many breeds sport whip-like tails. However, canine tails are typically less flexible than those of cats, and also shorter: about a third of the head-body length, rather than a half. Also, breeders tend to shorten the tail; I know of no breed with significantly long tails.
     It would have been useful if the report of footprints on 5 July 1956 had been accompanied by a good drawing. Just the same, the description, such as it is, and the size are consistent with a very big dog. Indeed, the presence of claw imprints virtually clinches it. A cat's claws are retracted unless the soil is very soft, and this soil was too hard to record a 30 lb kelpie's prints. As for the meagre descriptions of the body, they are consistent: great size, canine snout, short legs, unusual gait, abnormally long tail, coat colour in the brown/tan/sandy range, with stripes over the head and neck. Despite Mr Featherstone's drawing, no-one, not even he, referred to stripes on the body. All this sounds like a very big, rather unusual dog to me.
     Ironically, Crosbie Morrison's second opinion was probably accurate: the initial sighting being of an outsized cat, with the others being an outsized dog, with the nocturnal cries being made by an owl. Case closed.


  1. From the description, it seems they may have been seeing a Tasmanian Tiger:

    1. I shall be addressing that in my next post but, basically, it looked nothing like a Tasmanian tiger. The witnesses never described stripes over the body, but rather, over the head and neck, which is one place they do not exist on a Tasmanian tiger. In later years, people started claiming to have seen thylacines all over the area, as I shall detail in my next post. But, in my opinion, their descriptions were not sufficient.

    2. Very interested and thought that I'd share..
      I was driving from Cape Paterson to Inverloch in December 2012 with my wife. We always encounter wildlife on the roads like rabbits, wombats, foxes, and Roos so we have a habbit of driving slowly.
      We got about half way, around "Eagles Nest".
      Coming around the bend, we saw an animal standing in the middle of the road over a small carcass.
      This thing was big. It stood like a cat, was way too big to be a wild cat or dog. Big ears and long body.
      What struck me was the way that it moved. As we got closer, it looked up, paused, and leapt into the scrub with what seemed to be one or two jumps. I'm talking 10 metres! It was too dark to see the colour clearly, but it seemed dark.
      It also seemed to sum up the situation before it left the carcass, where all other animals flee.
      Definitely not like any animal I've ever encountered in the wild.
      Just thought I'd share , because I rarely bring it up because nobody believes us! I always wonder what it was.

    3. Hi Malcolm,
      not sure if you're being a bit tongue-in-cheek with the "case closed" ending your article, but scientifically I would say that is a premature conclusion. You have certainly offered a reasonable-sounding possible explanation, most likely to be aceptable to people who do not like to entertain the notion that there could be unknown animals about, but the fact is none of us actually know what these people saw, and your conclusion is a hypothesis rather than a definitive "case closed" solution.
      kind regards,