The Research Journey: The Problem of Proof

In 1990 I joined the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association (ARFRA),founded in 1984 by Peter Chapple (1958-2002) following an encounter with a big cat in the Dandenong Ranges, after viewing some of the evidence gathered by the association. I participated as driver in many night observations, and plaster casting etc. Some years ago I was asked to write from files a small booklet on the ‘Wonthaggi Monster’ as a money-raiser. Among the confusion of attempts to explain startling sightings in the 1950s, which might have included more than one species, some consensus emerges. An animal was repeatedly seen that was marked out from known species of dogs, cats, foxes, possums, wombats, wallabies and quolls by its stripes, tail, head, size, gait, and cries that could be associated with no known animal. In 1961 following newspaper publicity, the description ‘like a Tasmanian Tiger’ appears in the records, and reports from old-timers that the thylacine was plentiful in some parts of Victoria in the early days.

Scientists are not infallible. A 1955 description — ‘It was up a tree, big as a dog, large claws, large head, furry body, striped like a Zebra, and a long tail … when it saw me it sprang 15 ft. to the ground and disappeared;’ a neighbour also heard its scream – was interpreted by expert Crosbie Morrison: a rare (silent) Great Possum Glider going to bed, the stripes probably shadows of tree branches. His later version was that it was a dog, plus a cat doing the 15 ft. jump, plus an owl or koala contributing the vocalisation. Some years ago a thylacine carcase was found, fallen into a cave under the Nullarbor; carbon dated as 2-4000 years old, and declared ‘mummified’, yet the animal had soft tissue including an eye, smelt, and was still being eaten by insects; further evidence from later close inspection of the site indicated that the body was a very recent deposit. Since the thylacine was declared extinct, there has been a strong scientific bias against any evidence of its continuing existence; in Victoria, even before that. Scientific expeditions searching for both big cats and thylacines, and failing to find them, conclude that witnesses are mistaken; but they continue to be seen.

After examining a considerable number of witness reports in the ARFRA database I realised that overall they were remarkably consistent. Looking at three apparently different descriptions in the same street, where one animal seemed more probable, I considered the effects of circumstances on perception. It seemed improbable that two different weird animals turned up in the same place around the same time. A cat-like jump from a roof in the rainy dawn and a kangaroo-like stance in the backlight from the porch do not readily exhibit colour or markings; but the boys who held the striped dog-like animal in torchlight as it ran from their chookpen got a better look. The fact that the three descriptions appeared contradictory at first sight did not prove that the witnesses were hoaxers or necessarily mistaken; my attention was further drawn to the effect on perception of circumstances.

Over the last year, since facing the prospect of trying to draw together Chapple’s assorted and unfinished writings, I have been comparing and analysing my subjective remembered experience of animal sightings in different circumstances. This has led me to start asking questions of witnesses during that time (in person, by telephone, or by following up reports submitted to the ARFRA website) about the nature of the subjective experience, in addition to details of what witnesses saw.

Subjectively, the ‘flashbulb’ memory is instanced by the visual image of a blur with a fox’s bushy tail passing a very suburban window. I have a much clearer image of the fox running straight up the back fence; yet I know I did not see this. I saw my dog, oblivious to the silent passing of the fox, suddenly pick up the scent, and follow it at such speed that it ran straight up the fence and fell off on its back. My interpretation of the fox’s behaviour was apparently coded visually. This fox’s behaviour was so unusual as to cause several people to ring the local police and newspaper, which verified for me that I had not been seeing things. Had the fox tail not been so recognisable I would not have known what I saw in that split second.

In 1982 I reacted to a loud and unidentifiable cry from the outside my window in the bush with a strong startle reaction and a feeling of something weird; the memory was dismissed as ‘weirdest fox I’ve ever heard’ until 1990, when I heard the identical cry on an ARFRA tape, recorded within a very short time of a thylacine sighting, which made my scalp prickle. Later occurrences I would designate exciting; another right outside my window was so loud as to wake me, very startled.

On a further occasion, standing with my dog at the edge of the circle of light outside my back door, I was snarled at from about 3m away in pitch darkness by something unknown. What struck me on this occasion was the opposite messages from body and brain. A week later I identified the same noise out of the blue on overhearing a CD from the San Diego Zoo: the puma. This produced a less intense alarm reaction. Shortly after, the cry occurred again, in conjunction with a panicking goat strangling itself almost to the point of death in its efforts to escape, and the dog barking hysterically from behind the safety of the security door. Physiologically I experienced intense arousal without the fear factor, but my brain forbade me to leave the house without calling for backup; the goat survived until my friend arrived and we sidled up the driveway back to back, flashing our torches, to release the goat after great difficulty just as it collapsed. I have on several occasions heard with interest vocalisations consonant with puma or panther calls from the safety of the house or car, without alarm.

I have a particular interest in perception and memory. I can identify times when I have attached the wrong face to a remembered event, or been hazy or confused, or a memory has completely disappeared. I have experienced a moment when driving overtired, of registering lights ahead of me without perception of either pattern or meaning.

All these subjective experiences led to my acceptance of theories of the unreliability of eyewitness reports in criminal cases, while entertaining a growing conviction that the probability factor of thousands of consistent animal sightings being wrong would have a large number of noughts after the decimal point. I therefore chose to examine the reports themselves in the light of studies of perception, memory, and eyewitness accuracy. One of these, by Victor Trombettas, shares my unease about attributing unerring accuracy and objectivity to artificial studies and quantification in subjective human situations, and points up the need to explore apparent contradictions through language use and point of view. Empirical evidence has also led to wrongful conviction, and its over-valuing can lead to setting aside other forms of evidence that should be considered.

© Dorothy B. Williams 2018