Why pardon the dingo? The background is this: for a long time it has been thought that when dingoes arrived in Australia about 4,000 years ago they displaced the Thylacines and Tasmanian Devils that inhabited mainland Australia. Dingoes did not make it to Tasmania, and there the Thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers) and Devils lived on until the European settlers got there. In Tasmania, settlers eradicated the Tigers and diminished the numbers of Devils. Now the Devils are threatened with extinction, and the tiger is extinct (according to most people, although some cryptozoologists differ).
Just recently, however, a more elaborate study has offered a more complicated story. The method is statistical modelling, so I can’t claim any expertise, but the results are as follows. The author of ‘A Pardon for the Dingo’ reports on a study that modelled varying combinations of human, climate, and dingo impacts, and concluded that humans and climate change had the greatest impacts on the loss of Tiger and Devil populations. Dingoes had the least impact. The stats show a probable scenario of growing human population leading to increased hunting of kangaroos and other herbivores, thus depleting food supplies for Tigers and Devils. My understanding of the stats story is that there came a time about 4000 years ago when a lot of things happened at once: human populations expanded, the country was becoming more arid, and another top predator (the dingo) arrived on the scene. This moment of change is lalso linked archaeologically with a new suite of smaller stone tools. With humans, dingoes, Tigers and Devils all trying to sustain themselves, it looks like the marsupials (Tigers and Devils) lost out.
This is all interesting, but I think an element of the story has been left out. The unacknowledged factor is that humans and dingoes were capable of becoming allies. The old human-canine bond gave both humans and dingoes an edge in a time when climate and other pressures were putting stresses on everyone’s capacity to survive. It is well known historically that some dingoes and humans protected each other and hunted together, so I think it may be that the dingoes’ capacity for allying themselves with humans became a critical factor in how they established themselves in Australia.
The thought of alliance invites us to look at causality in another way. If everything was happening around the same time, it is equally possible that the dingo-human alliance boosted human hunting capacity, leading to increased human population. Thus would mean that human ‘intensification’ (rising populations) was due not so much to technology (‘small tool tradition’), but also, and perhaps most significantly, to the dingo alliance. In this story of an interspecies collaboration, the changes in human inhabitation of the country were facilitated by dingoes at the same time that dingoes’ inhabitation of the country was facilitated by humans. If Tigers and Devils lost out, it was not just due to interacting variables, but rather to a conscious alliance between humans and dingoes.
On a related theme, one of my favourite email-buddies, Ray Pierotti, wrote just yesterday with some thoughts on this alliance. Ray is an Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, and is a specialist on monogamous vertebrates, including wolves, dogs and other canids. He was asking a few questions about dingoes, and wrote: ‘I am writing a book tentatively titled The First Domestication, which is my attempt to address the complex love-hate relationship that humans have with the genus Canis in general, and Canis lupus [wolves] in particular.’ He writes that some societies, and certainly some humans, turn on canids. Instead of becoming allies, they make the animals into enemies. Ray concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’ His evidence is primarily with wolves in North America; the Australian story is yet to be told.
Perhaps because it is Valentine’s Day, I began thinking about love and betrayal. I was drawn to consider the deep commitments animals themselves express: to offspring, to country, to partners, to modes of expression such as dance or song, to group or clan. Not all animals are alike, but few are without commitments. The story of love as commitment is integral to life on earth, and the human-canine alliance is one of its great interspecies expressions. And as is true within any complex love relationship, betrayal looms as a possibility. It is another side of the depths of life: without the commitment involved in love, there could be no betrayal.
The place where love and betrayal meet brings me to the terrible situation so many dingoes face in Australia today. As with wolves in America, they are being poisoned, hunted, vilified, tortured, their dead bodies strung up on trees, their future perilous indeed. Dingoes experience a betrayal that permeates and destroys the bonds that could be, and have been, so beautiful and beneficial. Many of us, humans and canines, are shocked by human betrayal of our ancient elective kinship.
To return to ‘Pardon for the Dingo’, the actual meaning of the word ‘pardon’ depends on context and agency. There is the context in which humans are now pardoning the dingoes, asserting that they were not responsible for the loss of the mainland Tigers and Devils. Here the agency is with the human: we grant a pardon. The other context is far more interesting: that dingoes hold agency and that we need to be pardoned. Surprising though it may seem, it is well past time for humans to asking dingoes to pardon us.
This is what Barry Lopez was advocating years ago in relation to wolves. He wrote: ‘In the end, I think we are going to have to go back and look at the stories we made up when we had no reason to kill, and find some way to look the animal in the face again.’ As the years go by, we are forced to realise that these words can be said in relation to a growing number of animals and plants whose lives and worlds are disappearing under the weight of human pressures. How shall we ever meet them on ethical grounds?
What did he think as the man walked toward him with his camera and his gun? Did he sense, and did he know? Did his eyes speak the existential challenge: shall we live together?
We contemporary settler Australians have wronged dingoes terribly, and part of the awful contemporary knowledge of that wrong is that we were fighting a pointless battle. Retrospectively, it was misguided and fundamentally evil. Dingoes are a top predator whose ecological benefits were felt throughout Australian ecosystems. A recent article authored in part by Arian Wallach, the dingo expert whose views I love to share, makes the point that globally, top predators, or large carnivores, ‘are necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem function. Human action cannot fully replace the role of large carnivores.’ The further point is that a large number of the terrestrial carnivores are imperilled (and of course the same is true of large marine carnivores). The dingo is discussed prominently in this article, along with sea otters, gray wolves, pumas, lions and leopards, among others. The article makes the point that climate change will require (or is now already requiring) rapid responses from species, biotic communities, and ecosystems. With so many variables, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but the authors suggest that large predators may well provide ‘buffers’ that offer some protection in the face of rapid change, giving others the chance to make adaptive changes. In short, we need the large carnivores now more than ever. And yet, as with dingoes in Australia, human pressures are forcing them to the edge.
To return to dingoes, my question is: are we homo sapiens actually sapient enough, that is wise enough, to come face to face with the fellow creatures we have so wantonly harmed? And if we did try to apologise, what would we ask forgiveness for? In keeping with my view that there are never just one or two answers to matters involving ecological complexity, I offer a number of wounds for which apologies are due.
1) For all the direct cruelty: it is unnecessary, it is all one way; there is no war, it is just senseless slaughter.
2) For all the 1080 poison and strychnine: it causes suffering and terrible death, and it keeps moving through the food webs taking other creatures too.
3) For the desecration of dead bodies: for all the bodies hung from trees and posts, thrown over fences, and run over again and again on the roads.
4) For the vilification: for the hatred that has no cause outside of the mess of violence and blame. It is not dingoes, but climate change and unrealistic land use, that is causing drought in Queensland and NSW.
5) For the suffering and death of so many other creatures, for example, rabbits. In all the decades during which rabbits were infected with diseases, gassed, chopped, shot, trapped, and otherwise harmed, dingoes could have been keeping them in check properly so that their numbers didn’t turn into ‘plagues’.
6) For all the small native animals driven to extinction because the dingoes were not there to hold the meso-predators such as cats and foxes in check.
7) For all the ecosystems that once benefitted from the trophic cascades of functioning dingo families and are now disappearing.
8) For our own failure to learn the lessons of how to be a top predator. For our over-population, over-consumption, and refusal to live within our ecological means.
9) And with heartfelt sincerity – let us ask to be forgiven for the betrayal of our mutual kinship.
How to start such a momentous project of pardon? It is always worth reminding ourselves that first and foremost it is we who need to change. But change doesn’t come about without thought. As a first step, we need to move toward respect for the life that animates us all. I always think of the great 13th century poet Rumi. He wrote:
‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground,
There are a thousand ways to go home again.’
Think of it ~ a thousand ways! One of them, surely, is to seek pardon from dingoes.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)