“MONSTER CAT STALKS HILLS” proclaimed the Hills Shire Times in late-autumn 2003. The article featured a photo of teenager Luke Walker, his arm dripping with blood. He alleged that he was ambushed by a panther on his driveway in Kenthurst, about 40 kilometres north-west of Sydney’s CBD. This wasn’t anything new — big cat panics have captured Australia’s rural white communities since at least the 1830s, but this persistent myth reveals far more beyond the potential of a stalking panther.
Soon after the Hills Shire Times ran this piece, Labor MP David Campbell appealed to his colleagues in NSW Parliament, reassuring Hawkesbury’s terrified residents that “it is a threat that New South Wales takes seriously”. After community meetings where impassioned residents demanded real action, the state government finally launched an inquiry into the existence of panthers in Sydney’s bushland.
The report — released later the same year — concluded that it was “more likely than not” that a panther, or population of panthers, existed on Sydney’s rural outskirts. It’s a shocking conclusion for any government to arrive at and, while it falls short of proclaiming the existence of a more abstract creature like Bigfoot, it isn’t far detached. For most sceptics, the report still fell short of actually saying the panthers did exist. Afterall, big cats have been accidentally (and sometimes intentionally) released into various reserves around the country, but almost all of them were caught or killed before too long. Surely the same would happen if panthers really existed in the wilderness?
However, for communities near the city’s bushland, scholars have noted that legends like these are woven deep into the fabric of how individuals relate to nature. One understanding of the origins of the myth could stem primarily from mysterious cattle deaths — similar to how some American farmers believed livestock were being killed for blood rituals during the satanic panic of the 1980s and 90s. After all, a significant portion of purported evidence for the panther myth is the butchered carcasses of sheep and cows with limbs and necks broken, grass still in their mouths.
These gruesome discoveries are no doubt deeply traumatising and confusing, with communities trying to rationalise these strange finds. However, the contextual elements of what it means to be a white Australian living on the fringes of urbanity deeply inform those rationalisations that one arrives at.
Since the establishment of a British government on Gadigal land in 1788, the British imported the idea of a “frontier.” On one side was civility and order — represented most clearly by grid-like streets, mass infrastructure, governments, and private property — and on the other, untamed and lawless wilderness. So, while many of us live deeply entrenched within “settled” Australia, for those who live in rural places where these two imagined worlds almost coexist, the spatial fear of the bush is pronounced.
This tension and terror remains a powerful presence within white Australian folklore. For example, the Bunyip — a mythological creature of Ngarrindjeri, Moorundi and Wemba-Wemba origins — has been distorted by white interpretations, with settlers using the myth to rationalise unfamiliar noises and their fear of the unknown along the frontier. An extrapolation can be drawn to the panthers of Sydney’s rural settlements, in which people seek to rationalise and explain their implicit fear of what lies beyond their homes and, perhaps, what is trying to encroach upon them.
Two more inquiries took place in 2009 and 2013 — both found “no conclusive evidence” of the existence of the panthers and rejected the “more likely than not” finding of the 2003 report spurred by the attack on Walker. Despite this, eye-witness accounts and footage of big cats continue to be published online with community collectives set on finding proof of the urban legend. The NSW Department of Primary Industries even continues to investigate sightings, just in case a big cat really did get loose into the Australian wilderness.
2020 saw Sydney’s last bout of big cat fever as some surprisingly clear footage of what seems to be a panther in Wahroonga, sparking renewed debate over the existence of the cats. Every few years this pop culture keystone rises to the surface — with other panics in 2018 and 2013, and countless more stretching far back into Australia’s European history. The big cat panics will continue no matter how many times the government says there isn’t any proof, because the force behind the sightings is far more powerful than any panther could ever be. White Australians will always grapple with their existential terror over what lies beyond their “settled” world — a world of danger, unfamiliarity, isolation, and maybe a few big cats.