Monday, 28 May 2012

The Tale of the Toowong Tiger: Brisbane's "Big Cat" Mystery!

 Looking over Toowong from Mt Coot-tha, c. 1932.  (John Oxley Library)
Up until this stage, the Haunts of Brisbane has focused on the haunted history of our city.  However, during the week we threw the Facebook-lines open in order to ask those of you, who follow us, what you'd like to read in our upcoming book.  One fan, Corey, came forward with a great idea: "I'd love to see more on 'the forgotten Brisbane'…by that I mean occurrences of hauntings and mysteries that date back to before the middle of last century."  If we step aside from our usual focus on ghosts, Brisbane also has a very vibrant history when it comes to the unexplained...only the other night, Lauren, another of our supporters & fellow published historians, raised the topic of Pallara's "Yowie" - having grown up in Ipswich, I've heard numerous stories relating to this creature...many as a result of regurgitated urban legend, & a few from first-hand experience.  That story, however, remains for another what's this week's article about, I hear you ask in anticipation??

Our story focuses on the Brisbane suburb of Toowong in May 1949...quite amazingly, the first mention of our mystery comes from an article published in The Courier Mail on the 27th of May 1949 - yesterday's date!  Over the previous week, surrounding residents had been waking to find their hen-houses broken open & chooks killed - this wasn't a particularly unusual event in Brisbane at the time, & a fox or dog was suspected as the culprit.  Similarly, for the previous two months across the Brisbane River, over 30 chooks had been killed around the Dutton Park & Annerley area, including those of Cecil Souter, the South Brisbane Cemetery Caretaker.  Mr Souter, who had lost 15 hens in a  single night, took to setting rabbit traps around his yard & sleeping with a loaded rifle in anticipation of a return visit.  A large fox had been spotted in the area, & residents vowed to hunt down the bushy-tailed culprit - one night, taxi driver H. J. Bradshaw spotted the animal out in the open, & wildly chased it down Gladstone Road in a vain attempt to run it over with his taxi!  Needless to say, with the bushland of Mt Coot-tha nearby, a fox was also considered the most likely culprit in Toowong.

 Mr Souter in preparation of the fox's return (The Courier Mail, 23rd May 1949)

Within a few nights, the Toowong "marauder" turned its sights on the home of Robert McGregor-Lowndes, at 16 Eldridge Street.  Mr McGregor-Lowndes was a keen ornithologist, & kept a number of exotic birds including two South American Macaws, a South African Grey Parrot, a number of finches...& like many other residents of Brisbane at the time, some trusty chooks. On the first visit, the "marauder" took the life of Mr McGregor-Lowndes' rare South African Grey Parrot...the next night, the killer apparently paid another visit, 8 finches being found dead in their cages supposedly from shock.  Not being one to idly stand by whilst his precious birds were selectively executed, McGregor-Lowndes formulated a scheme to try & catch the beast, notifying the papers of his cunning plan.  Thus, on the 27th of May 1949, The Courier Mail ran its first article on the Toowong "marauder."  Entitled, "Pitchfork Vigil to find Fowl Killer," the article detailed McGregor-Lowndes' plan to use chooks as decoys in the hope of luring the predator within striking which time, McGregor-Lowndes intended on poking it with his pitchfork!  Heber Longman, a local naturalist, was also interviewed for the piece - in his opinion, the culprit was most likely a native tiger cat (spotted tiger quoll), a similar animal having been responsible for chook deaths in Toowong some years earlier.

The very next day, on the 28th of May, The Courier Mail ran a follow-up article, entitled, "Killer's' treble."  Unfortunately, Mr McGregor-Lowndes had hidden himself in wait for the beast from 1am until almost daybreak, when responsibilities required his departure from the address.  No sooner had he left, than the sneaky "marauder" slipped into his yard unhindered, and killed three of McGregor-Lowndes' chooks...the very three chooks that had been used as decoys!  Not one to be bettered by a pesky animal, McGregor-Lowndes concocted an even more elaborate scheme to capture the creature on the night of the 29th of May...the details of which found their way into The Courier Mail the next day on the 30th.  According to the article, "A big net was spread from the fowl house to the front gate, and was backed by pitchforks, a rifle, sticks and a light.  Plan of campaign was for Mr. Jack Sten, a friend, to pull the net, switch on the light, and then all hands would attack.  And if the "killer" missed the net, he might put a foot into one of the traps scattered round the yard."  How none of the intrepid hunters managed to inadvertently trigger the doomsday device in their excitement is anyone's guess, however they all survived the ordeal unscathed.  According to Mrs McGregor-Lowndes, the dogs of the neighbourhood howled for quite a while during the they'd been doing since the "marauder" had come onto the scene nearly two weeks previously...unfortunately, on this night, the killer failed to pay a visit.

The night of the 30th of May seems to have passed without incident in Toowong...however, the most amazing twist in the story occurred the very next night.  On the 1st of June, Mr J. H. Taylor ventured out into the backyard of his Milton Road property to lock his chook-house was 8pm at night, & he'd already lost 10 chooks to the "marauder" on a previous evening.  Located very close to the McGregor-Lowndes' residence in nearby Eldridge Street, Taylor was keen to retain what few birds he had his torch light on the chook-house, he froze, completely terror-stricken, as the beam lit up a creature about to pounce on one of his roosters!  According to yet another article published in The Courier Mail on the 4th of June, who by now were following the story with great interest, "It was something like a giant cat.  It moved like lightening when I disturbed it and came straight towards me.  I was close to it when it veered away, and bounded across the fence into my neighbour's place.  It was definitely not a dog.  I got a terrible shock.  It looked like a huge cat, with a long trailing tail."  The article goes further to mention that the creature didn't merely run at Mr Taylor after he'd opened the chook-house door..."The killer bounded over a seven-foot poultry fence and came straight at him."  After the near-miss, Taylor fled back indoors, white-faced & shaking.  Not wanting to miss a kill, the giant cat returned again the next night - "Large padded tracks, with protruding claw marks, were deeply impressed in the soft soil."

Again, naturalist Heber Longman was called upon to give his verdict...again, he claimed it was likely a tiger quoll.  However, a major problem exists with this theory: the average male tiger quoll weighs in at about 3.5 kilograms, & measures about 75 centimetres from nose to tail-tip...larger animals have been spotted on occasion, although not a great deal larger.  Taking those details into account, a male tiger quoll is about the size of a domestic cat...even a large quoll would be no bigger than a large domestic cat.  Furthermore, quolls will become defensive if cornered, however purposefully charging at a human is completely unnatural for this animal, & the ability to bound over, let alone scramble up, a seven foot fence is very questionable.  If the testimony of Taylor is to be believed, the cat in question was of a proportion large enough to make him fear for his life, had no fear of charging a fully grown man, & was capable of clearing a seven foot fence "like lightening."  Also, how heavy would a beast need to be to leave deep, large padded tracks in the dirt??  In the interest of playing devil's advocate, let's throw out the crazy notion that the animal was a cougar - females of the species weigh in at an average of 42 kilograms, measure about 200 centimetres from nose to tail-tip on average, can jump over 5 metres vertically & will attack humans if provoked.

But how the hell could a cougar, or any other species of large cat, possibly be skulking around 1949 Toowong, I hear you ask??  Well...the possibility behind what seems to be an incredibly outlandish statement, isn't as far fetched as you might think.  On the 18th of June 1943, at the height of World War II, 28 Officers, 33 Chiefs & 1023 enlisted men arrived in Brisbane aboard the S.S. Young America - these men, from America, formed the U.S. 84th Naval Construction Battalion.  Nicknamed the Seabees, these men travelled to Australia via Camp Parks & Camp Rousseau in California...the State in the U.S. renowned for its Cougar population.  After taking control of Camp Seabee at Eagle Farm, a contingent of enlisted men were sent to the base of Mt Coot-tha for a monumental construction project - the establishment of a U.S. Naval Mines Depot in the vicinity of the current Slaughter's Falls park area.  This U.S. Naval detachment existed at the base of Mt Coot-tha until late 1945 & the cessation of hostilities on the Pacific...& one can only wonder what extra baggage the men brought with them!  U.S. military contingents were renowned for travelling with "mascots," as were their counterparts from Australia.  Whist Australian troops smuggled wallabies on their tours overseas, U.S. troops were known for smuggling animals like cougars...many of the "big cat" sightings in Australia's southern regions are attributed to escaped/unleashed U.S. mascots dating back to WWII days.

U.S. Naval Mine Depot off Sir Samuel Griffith Drive (Courtesy

So...did Mr Taylor spot an unusually large spotted tiger quoll in his chook-house that night, after which he massively overreacted & retreated scared...or did he indeed spot a giant cat that bounded a seven foot fence & charged him, after which he fled in terror??  Did a tiger quoll leave the large impressions in Mr Taylor's yard complete with deep claw marks...or did a much larger, weightier predator??  Truth be's all just postulation...although, it makes for some very exciting postulation!  Ultimately, what are the chances an escaped "big cat" could survive on the slopes of Mt Coot-tha undetected??  The answer to that, again, is surprising...reports were made to Brisbane City Council nearly 10 years ago that a dingo pack had been harassing picnickers on Mt Coot-tha.  In the Courier Mail, the Council replied that no known dingoes existed in the area, & the reports were clearly mistaken.  A short time later, photos of the dingo pack were proffered & published in the same paper, proving dingoes were prevalent on the mountain...despite ongoing denials from the Council.  So...if a large family group of dingoes could thrive on the slopes of current-day Mt Coot-tha, undetected, is it really such a far stretch that a "big cat" could have roamed the same region unhindered for years after the U.S. extraction from the same area??

1 comment:

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