September 21, 2014 is the first-ever National Day of Action for Dingoes. The date is well-chosen: it is the International Day of Peace. The General Assembly of the United Nations has dedicated this day to strengthening the values of peace ‘both within and among all nations and peoples’.
Of course one assumes that ‘nations and peoples’ means human beings. But as the war against nature acquires ever more violence, and as those who practice violence become ever more intransigent, it is clear that we need to include animals, plants, ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere, soils and much more within our concept of the nations with which we (humans) need to be making peace. As Henry Beston wrote in relation to animals (and I think his point is widely relevant to all creature-worlds): ’they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’
NDAD has taken up the challenge in relation to Australian Dingoes (Canis dingo). According to the message on the NDAD Facebook page, the National Day of Action for Dingos was born from the advice of Dr Jane Goodall DBE at a recent meeting in Melbourne with a small group of dingo protection advocates. The objective of the event is twofold:
– to unite groups and individuals with a common goal to help dingoes
– to send a clear, united message to the Australian government about dingo protection.
My role in the emerging action has been to organise and film a conversation between myself and my friend Arian Wallach, facilitated by my friend Jane Ulman. We met the studio of our mutual friend Janet Laurence to discuss the question: ‘Can the War Against Dingoes be Stopped?’ (view here) I won’t summarise the conversation; it is fascinating and deep, and well worth the investment of 27 minutes of time.
The background to any question about peace must ask: what manner of creature is trying to make peace? We know a lot about human creatures in all our diversity, complexity, and apparent lack of capacity for holding onto peace. We know less about dingo creatures and their capacities. Thankfully, scientists like Arian Wallach and others are teaching us a lot. The research consistently reveals a complex family structure (known as a pack), collaborative care of the young, cooperative hunting, territorial defence, limits on family size and structure, individual personalities, and other features that indicate highly social animals with strong loyalties and a deep sense of duties and responsibilities. Their ability to harmonise together is a lovely indicator of their sociality, as I discussed in an earlier essay (view here).
Dingoes and other canines live within kin-based family groups. A standard anthropological definition of kinship is that kin relations are bonds of enduring solidarity based on descent from shared ancestor or formed in order to produce a new generation. These bonds of enduring solidarity are emotionally complex in animals, as indeed they are in humans; amongst all kin groups there is the work of raising the young, and work of dealing with loss. Social animals in kin groups are deeply invested in each other, and so it follows that the loss of a member entails grief – that is, the experience of irreversible loss of those with whom one’s own life is entangled is both felt and shared.
Recently, an instance of dingoes grieving was documented in the ‘wild’. It is unlikely that anyone who knows dingoes or who understands kinship will be surprised by this fact, but apparently there has been a dearth of scientific documentation. Rob Appleby, an ecologist at Griffith University in Brisbane documented a dingo family responding to the death of one of the pups. Their behaviour was similar to that of primates and other animals that grieve, such as dolphins, according to the report by Joseph Bennington-Castro. In his words:
“The dingo family consisted of a mother and five pups about 3 months old. When Appleby stumbled upon the family, one of the pups was dying — it was lying on the ground, where it occasionally lifted its head, whimpered and sometimes convulsed. The pup’s mother and littermates roamed around nearby, returning to the pup to sniff him and whimper every once in a while. The pup died within half an hour, but Appleby continued to periodically observe the family over the next two days.’
This report includes a brief bit of video footage of the mother moving her dead pup when Appleby got too close (view here). In Appleby’s words: ‘there was a lot of distress on the part of the mother’. She moved her pup three times, staying near it, not wanting to leave it. The surviving pups also changed their behaviour, becoming more subdued when they got close to the dead one.
Other fascinating reports about the emotional lives of dingoes show beyond doubt that it is possible to make peace with dingoes.
More than that, they show that peace actually has the potential to become precious friendship. The long history of alliance between humans and canines means that some canines may on occasion include humans in their family groups. Indeed, the Dingo Nation can be understood as a great multispecies group with many clans and families, some of whom include humans and some of whom do not.
A short but compelling report about John Cooper’s ‘love story’ offers a beautiful account of family interactions. John Cooper is a landowner with the duty of controlling dingoes on his property. He took the novel approach of making friends with the pack on his place, and leaving it to them to control the dingo population. The video of this extraordinary man shows him interacting with and the dingo family that allowed him to become part of the pack (view here). It includes a glimpse into the den where the mother dingo is nursing her pups, giving us a rare view of what Appleby has called ‘an enduring mother-infant bond’. Few things on the web are as totally delightful as John Cooper playing harmonica accompanied by a dingo.
Tehree Gordon also had an awesome experience of being incorporated into the family. She and her husband Hamish own the Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary – Dingo Conservation Centre, and she told her precious story on radio national’s ‘bush telegraph’ program. Shortly after the Gordons bought the Sanctuary the senior dingo died. There were about a hundred dingoes on the property at that time, and the loss of the matriarch was felt by all of them. As Tehree described the day, the dead dingo was down in the valley and the living dingoes sat quietly on a nearby ridge. Slowly, in groups of three, they went down to their dead mate and sat with her. One sat at her head, and one on each side. They stayed for about ten minutes and then, giving her a final sniff, they moved away and another group of three took their place. Tehree was not sure if she fit into the ritual at all, but she took a place further down the line, and when the time came she moved down the hill accompanied by two dingoes. She sat at the head, the other two took the sides, and they all remained there for ten minutes. Then she touched the dead dingo’s head, the others sniffed the body, and they all moved back up the hill.
It is one thing to witness rituals of grief, quite another to be included in them. And yet, as Tehree points out, there is nothing truly remarkable about all of this: ‘We all need to understand that anyone or anything who is close to something else has to grieve for the loss.’
Making peace would mean bringing an end to all the needless loss.
There can be no doubt that this is a time of immense suffering. Dingoes experience the physical pain of poisons, traps and bullets, and the survivors experience the grief and disorientation that comes with losing family and all one’s familiar ways of social and cultural life. The people who are working toward greater understanding of dingoes and a better future for them and for humans often suffer as well. I have visited some of these courageous people, and I will continue to visit and to write.
For now, in honour of the Dingo Nation’s canine and human members:
To all who suffer, and all who struggle to hold families together in face of on-going assault ~ Dog Bless!
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
The NDAD Facebook page is a rich site of information and lively action on behalf of the Dingo Nation.
In 2012 I made a short home video of a dingo family at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre in Victoria (view here). The Centre is one of numerous dingo rescue and conservation centres in Australia. Run by incredibly dedicated people who work non-stop to put an end to the war against dingoes, this and other centres are places where peace is lived out day by day in the most inspiring ways.
The ABC radio program featuring Tehree Gordon, Brad Purcell and myself can be downloaded (view here).
The Henry Beston quote is from his book The Outermost House.