Saturday August 19, 2006
By Jarrod Booker
The legend of the elusive panther-like creature roaming rural Canterbury is growing as animal experts join the search, but not even they have been able to solve the mystery.
For at least five years, the unusually proportioned animal or animals have been seen around the sparsely populated mid-Canterbury area, from the foothills to the sea.
Described as a large black cat, much bigger than a domestic cat, with a long tail, it is often seen slinking around on its belly and has an aversion to people.
Recent sightings prompted experts from Biosecurity New Zealand and Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Park to investigate in the area last week, but they didn't find it.
Biosecurity NZ believes it may be a particularly large feral cat, but Orana Park staff say it is possible the animal is a panther or big cat brought into the country before regulations were tightened.
Pawprints found in the area of one of the sightings were analysed by Orana Park staff this week and found to be that of a dog.
"It would be nice to get to the bottom of this. But I guess there is every possibility that we won't," says Biosecurity NZ senior adviser Sonya Bissmire.
Rangiora man Brent Thomas is one of those whose recent sightings prompted experts to travel to the area to investigate.
Mr Thomas was with his wife, Jill, and grandson Kahn, admiring the views from a lookout point near the mouth of the Ashburton River recently when he saw the animal in flattened-out grass on the edge of the river flats.
"It was not just a big black cat. I've seen wildcats before and it was something much more than that. It looked up at us and basically bolted. It was a very fleeting glimpse at best."
He likened it to the size of his golden labrador dog.
"I'm reluctant to use the word panther, because it sounds like you know what you are talking about. But I have never seen anything like it."
The local newspaper, the Ashburton Guardian, says the area has claimed the creature as its own.
"People who ring us with sightings are normal and sane people. They are not people given to flights of fantasy," says Guardian chief reporter Sue Newman.
Her son spotted the creature last year in a local walkway.
"He's done a lot of tramping and hiking and he's never seen anything like it before."
Orana Park animal manager Ian Adams says there are lot of theories about the animal.
It could be a zoo animal brought into the country that had escaped, or one or more large feral cats. A panther could survive in the harsh Canterbury winter by feeding on rabbits and birds.
"Anything is possible. I don't think we will ever get to the bottom of it until we have a body."
Ms Newman says interest in the creature has waxed and waned depending on the frequency of sightings, but the input of experts had added credibility and got people talking again.
People wanted to know what it was, but Ms Newman believes people would take exception to people going hunting for it.
"If someone came came across its carcass ... that would be different."
source: New Zealand Heraldhttp://www.nzherald.co.nz