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Monday, December 13, 2010



I thought you might be interested in an odd reference I’ve just found in a Victorian novel. I’m reading A Bid For Fortune by Guy Boothby, written in 1895 and notable for being one of the first novels to feature a master criminal. Dr Nikola’s constant companion is a huge black cat (domestic variety) which often sits on his lap and which he strokes soothingly while plotting evil – yup, just like Blofeld. Anyway, on page 79 of the recent reprint (‘Dr Nikola, Master Criminal’ published by Wordsworth), the hero describes his first encounter with this sinister moggie thusly:

‘I have seen cats without number, Chinese, Persian, Manx, the Australian wild cat and the English tabby, but never in the whole course of my existence such another as that owned by Dr Nikola.’

Australian wild cat?! Guy Boothby was an Australian, and made his hero one, too. Can this be a reference to the Queensland tiger or am I missing something? There are certainly no native cats in Australia, are there? According to Wikipedia, Boothby published a travel book the previous year (1894) describing a journey he made ‘across Australia’ from Cooktown to his home town of Adelaide – did he see a ‘wild cat’ during that real life adventure?

A bit of a mystery and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

All the best,

Richard (Holland!)



Dale Drinnon said...

Moggies (Feral domestic cats) were certainly known and spoken of in Australia before the 1890s, somewhat affectionately and somewhat derisively by goldminers at least. No doubt that would be what Boothby referred to. I do not know how commonly the stories would mention an unusually large size, though, although black was a common colour among them.

Australia does have creatures called "Native cats" but the context makes it clear that the reference was to Felis domesticus-cats. Australia also does have introduced Rodents of Unusual Size.

shiva said...

I would assume from context that by "cats" he means Felis catus, and therefore that the "Australian wild cat" he refers to is an early reference to feral F. catus in Australia.

Wikipedia says "Historical records date the arrival of feral cats in Australia at around 1824.[9] Despite that, it has been suggested that feral cats have been present in Australia since before European settlement, and may have arrived with Dutch shipwrecks in the 17th century, or even before that, arriving from present-day Indonesia with Macassan fisherman and trepangers who frequented Australia's shores."

There is a theory that the "giant F. catus" in Australia are descendants of a much older feral cat population, which have had more time to evolve to adapt to their own environment. This theory is supported by the observation (including, IIRC, video footage according to one Darren Naish post) of "giant ferals" and normal-domestic-sized ones together. The "giant" ones also seem to be exclusively black, which suggests they are of a common origin.

Some have also suggested that the pre-European-colonisation feral cats, if they exist, may also have ancestry from other, larger Asian species of Felis, such as the Asian Jungle Cat F. chaus, which *may* have been (semi-)domesticated by Indonesian sailors/fishers.

Dr Karl Shuker said...

Hi Richard, Yes, I too think he was probably referring to a feral domestic cat, many of which exist throughout Australia and sometimes attain quite prodigious sizes, especially black ones. Feral domestics are often dubbed 'wild cats' both in Australia and elsewhere, not least because their temperament can sometimes be quite ferocious. But thanks for bringing it to our attention - some of these magazines can hide fascinating crypto-info, as we now know from the previously-overlooked Trunko photos in Wide World Magazine, for instance.
All the best, Karl

CFZ Australia said...

The earliest account of a 'big cat' was from 1883 by SA explorer Charles Winnecke. The journal of his exploration on the WA-NT border says Winnecke came across a "wild cat of an extraordinary size". "The brute was nearly as large as a leopard." - Extract taken from Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers by Mike Williams and Rebecca Lang.
It's possible Boothby was aware of his experience and others...