This just in: There are no big cats in Victoria.

Puma concolor (image via Wikipedia)

A report ordered by the Victorian State Government on the status of ‘big cats’ in the state has just been released. You can read about it here at the ABC News or here at The Age. The authors of the report, from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, did not find any evidence to support the (crackpot) idea that large cats are roaming around the country areas of the state. The Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walsh has said, “Some preliminary DNA evidence also cannot be entirely dismissed but it is not sufficiently conclusive to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the identity of an animal.” Uh-huh. In amongst the Bureaucratese, I got ‘we had DNA but were told it was just from a domestic cat and we were disappointed’ from that statement. This may be because there are so many feral cats lurking around the place, who annoyingly would share much of their DNA with other species of cats, and also because labs that can tell you the name, address and birthday of someone/thing from a piece of DNA only exist on TV shows like CSI.

From The Age:

While the report author says it is impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, his survey of about a century’s worth of anecdotal evidence alleging big cats exist in Victoria has concluded it is highly unlikely.

“We can’t say 100 per cent there are no big cats in Victoria but we can say it is highly unlikely,” Department of Sustainability of Environment zoologist Peter Menkhorst said on Tuesday.

Mr Menkhorst examined more than 1000 pieces of data, including anecdotal reports collected by community groups and the government.

He said instances where people had blamed the mauling of livestock or other wildlife on a big cat pointed to a lack of understanding of how known predators behaved.

Some people seem to assume that big cats like pumas exist in parts of Australia, but the evidence points to regular domestic cats adapting to life as ferals and becoming really large (see here for a nice discussion on this). Obviously this takes time to occur, and over many generations. But cats were introduced into Australia in the late 1700s as part of European colonisation, and, when conditions are good, they can breed like rabbits (another environmental invader).
Let’s throw some taxonomy in while we’re here (after all, it’s what I’m all about). The article from The Age lists “pumas, leopards, jaguars or cougars” as potentially roaming around the place. This is an excellent example of why common names are stupid and confusing. The cat Puma concolor (it has been moved from the genus Felis into its own) has a wide distribution across most of the Americas, and this has led to various common names being used across different regions – a puma and a cougar are the same thing and they are also a mountain lion too. Cougars can also be called panthers, although generally ‘panther’ refers to a jaguar (Panthera onca) that is all-black in appearance instead of spotted. Finally, leopards (P. pardus) which occur in Asia and Africa but not the Americas, also come in a black morph that is referred to as a ‘panther’. So I’m not entirely sure whether the government report wanted three different species of cats serached for, or just one.

While this finding does not astound me in the slightest, what I do find jaw-droppingly incredible is that the government sought to have this report completed in the first place. They aren’t telling us how much it cost to produce, but I’d guess it was a substantial amount (as in, a decent small-research-grants’-worth). Feral cats (and dogs and foxes) have done so much harm to the overall biodiversity of the state (and the country), and their numbers go more or less unchecked. Surely the money spent on this report would have better used for developing control measures for feral cats, dogs and/or foxes?

Final note: Perhaps the Minister for Agriculture might like to turn his attention to yowies next? There are highly unsubstantiated claims that they roam around the countryside too…

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