HAWKESBURY is the focus for the fifth installment of a podcast series on panther (also known as black leopard) sightings around Australia, and creator Ben Beed is calling on locals with eyewitness accounts to contribute to his project.
"I'm calling out for witnesses who claim to have seen a big cat to go on record about their encounter for the podcast," Mr Beed told the Gazette.
The Missing Panther podcast series is something close to the heart of Mr Beed, who grew up in Bathurst hearing stories about the 'Lithgow panther' - the topic for the first episode.
When Mr Beed was 13, he discovered three "unidentified newborn creatures" high up in a Willow tree near his family home.
"A local vet couldn't identify them. His diagnosis was cat-like with dog-like features. They weren't feral cats - they were huge, with huge paws and unusually long legs," Mr Beed said.
The podcast is an attempt by Mr Beed - a film student - to get to the bottom of a story he has been "obsessing over for years".
"Seeing all these current sightings come onto the news, and seeing the photos and videos, it's just been building up. So now it's time to go on an investigation so I can speak to these witnesses and form my own evaluation," he said.
The second episode addresses theories about how panthers might have come to roam Australian bushland, including theories of animals being let loose by World War II troops.
"US troops in World War II had big cats as mascots. They were meant to put them down afterwards, but rumours say pumas and panthers were released around the country instead," Mr Beed said.
Episode three deals with livestock kills, which took Mr Beed down to Victoria: "There are some really strange events in terms of farmers losing livestock to an unknown predator; we talk to farmers and experts who couldn't identify a native species capable of doing that."
The fourth episode covers circus and zoo escapes, and Mr Beed interviews current and former zoo owners and staff about documented and undocumented big cat escapes from two old zoos near the Hawkesbury, including the former Bullen's African Lion Safari Park at Warragamba.
"Episode five brings me to the Hawkesbury, which is a classic case of a community coming together to support one another with what they were believing to be panther sightings frequenting the local area. When ridicule was high they stood firm in what they believed," Mr Beed said, adding that eyewitness accounts came from sensible and "quite credible" people who were qualified to state "exactly what they saw".
"It's really not hard to believe that this creature or creatures escaped from a circus or zoo in the last decade or so, and possibly bred if there was more than one," he said.
"The panther isn't a mythical creature, it's something we can go down to the local zoo and see with our own eyes. With the hundreds of reported escapes over the years, is it that hard to believe that perhaps if nobody was looking that [an escape] just wasn't documented?"
If you believe you have seen a panther in the Hawkesbury, get in touch with Mr Beed - and listen to the first four installments of Missing Panther - via his website, www.missingpanther.com.au.