I was feeling deeply blessed as Payi got me ready for ceremony. She helped me get rubbed up with red ochre, and she painted my face with the White-breasted Sea Eagle design using white ochre she had gathered just the day before. She painted bands of yellow ochre on my lower legs – they were dingo designs. After so many years of thinking and writing about dingoes, it was a particular thrill to know that I would be wearing their marks when I danced.
The opportunity to get back into Kurrindju Country was exhilarating. The northern dry season had turned crisp, and out in the hills and floodplains of this tropical region the silky oaks were flowering. It was a short distance from Darwin, but we saw Country that had been well burnt. The new grass and cycads were vivid, and a dingo stopped to look at us before ambling off into the bush.
I have worked with the Mak Mak mob, the White-breasted Sea Eagle clan, over many years. Payi’s mother was an inspiration – an immensely strong and knowledgeable woman. Payi, also known as Dr Linda Ford, follows in her mother’s footsteps with dignity, traditional knowledge, and a successful academic career. As part of her Australian Research Council grant she brought together people from about sixteen different clans, and several dance-ceremony traditions for three days of intense bonding, sharing, and teaching.
Payi describes her action-based cultural survival research this way: ‘Ceremonial performance is a socially powerful site of exchange, transmission and transformation of relationship to country, kin and identity. The project aims to extend the power of ceremony to benefit future generations of Indigenous people’s identity and Australia’s shared history.’
I will have more to say in a future essay about the gathering Payi organised. Just at the moment my thoughts have been brutally grabbed back to the world of man-made mass-death. For while we were celebrating cultural continuities, shared histories, multi-species communities, Country, and non-human kin, dingoes were once again being vilified, tortured, and degraded.
This latest program is a doozy, and as with so much that goes wrong in the mass-killing that lurks under the label ‘conservation’, the idea of the ‘pest’ was at the core. With the objective of killing goats on Pelorus Island in the Great Barrier Reef (Queensland), two desexed male dingoes have been taken to the island. According to the news report, two more will be brought in. The idea is that the island will be better off without introduced goats, and the expectation is that the dingoes will kill the goats. The dingoes can’t breed, and each one is fitted out with a large radio collar and a capsule of 1080 poison that can be released to kill the individual once the project is complete.
Rather than use methods that may reduce suffering, such as sharp-shooting, this program uses dingoes as human proxies, hoping they’ll do the killing. The Queensland RSPCA is concerned about the suffering of goats. Questions arise: will the dingoes actually kill the goats? Lyn Watson, a dingo expert, says they are likely to kill smaller animals first, and will not turn to goats until they reach a ‘starvation situation’. It seems probable that many goats will die very stressfully and painfully, but only after the dingoes have themselves become starved and stressed.
The ramifications of the cruelty of this program are so enormous that perhaps they haven’t fully been thought through. The 1080 poison causes terrible deaths. Once the humans have no more use for the dingoes, they are condemned to the very suffering the program purports to reduce.
One suggestion is that it is cheaper to get dingoes involved than to employ humans. Such a calculus of engineered and industrialised death is appalling. It gets worse. Dingoes are social animals. They live in family groups, and they find the meaning of their lives in the context of their family responsibilities. This is the context within which they fulfil their ecological functions. Desexed males do not constitute family groups. There is no way that they can live adequate social and ecological lives. The program condemns dingoes to anxiety and suffering in life, and terminates them with an appalling death.
And what about the humans in this story? To treat other living beings as objects, rather than as subjects in their own right, is to step into the domain of instrumental torture. This plan extends the human capacity to cause suffering, terror, misery, and industrialised death. It draws other creatures into human designs for mass-death, shifting the blood and suffering away from the humans. The unwanted goats are to be eliminated by proxies, purportedly for the good of the island. Those proxies, the dingoes, will then be eliminated by remote control when someone in an office somewhere triggers the 1080.
According to one report, this plan is suggested to be consistent with compassionate conservation. Let’s be clear that the program is riddled with hubris and hard-heartedness; there is no compassion, and there are no clean hands. Rather, there is the old divide and conquer mentality: identify the enemy, find an efficient solution, eliminate, terminate.
The news of this program is a timely reminder that colonisation is a multi-stranded endeavour that is worked out across human and nonhuman domains. Many current conservation schemes use industrialised killing to try to control wildlife populations, and in doing so they reproduce the same hubristic, hard-hearted determination to control the land through dispossession, appropriation, replacement and slaughter.
Use a ‘pest’ to take care of a ‘pest’ seems to be the superficial logic. It is a logic of violence and self-serving justification. It draws on the rationale of cost-benefit to avoid ethics, and it draws on a history of industrialised killing; it aims to expedite death. The logic has a certain seduction: I hate to see Country lose its flourishing abundance, and many invasives have devastating effects on diversity and abundance. I agree that we settler-descended people who have brought so much damage to these lands and waters have a duty to try to curtail the damage and to enhance Country’s capacity for resilience. At the same time, Frank Egler’s great comment comes to mind: ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they’re more complex than we can think. The power of Country to find its own resilience is beyond human engineering. I am sure we can help, but it is the worst sort of folly to think we can engineer.
The great ethical disaster is to justify the suffering of others by reference to something that has been determined to be a ‘greater good’.
Industrialised killing is not the final story. It is contested by many settler-descended people and by many Aboriginal people. And while there is no consensus on how to care for Country that has been radically impacted by colonisation and ecocide, Land Rights offers a threshold across which old ways of living generously, and new ways of living carefully can connect.
Many years ago Bruce Rose (no relation) carried out research with Aboriginal people in Central Australia, asking about their views on feral animals. He found that the question was not so much where animals had come from, but how they had managed to fit in: ‘the worth of an animal lies in its ability to live and flourish in the environment, not in its claim to being an original component of the fauna’. He found that many Aboriginal people expressed the idea the Country itself shows who belongs and who doesn’t. He concluded that ‘ethics and value judgements which support playing favourites with some species over others’ do not fit easily into the views of Aboriginal Elders.
Country decides! A recent video made by Arian Wallach using critter cams in ‘rare and remote locations’ shows animals getting about at night in an area where they are protected from lethal controls. It is thrilling for the fact that the coming and going of a range of animals takes place without their having to adjust their activities to accommodate humans. These critter cam opportunities show what technology can do when it is not being driven by deathwork. Here we have the opportunity to see others in unguarded moments of their own lives. It may cause a whisper of embarrassment to realise how pervy it is to snoop on other creatures’ lives, but at the same time, animals are in general so wary of humans, and with such good reason, that it is only through technological mediation that we may ever be able to glimpse the beauty of their autonomous, unselfconscious living.
Among the many gifts that Aboriginal people bring to what Payi calls ‘Australia’s shared history’ is the knowledge of living with, and within, Country. This is knowledge that involves humans inhabiting webs of life as participants rather than as murderous controllers. The Pelorus Island debacle shows yet again how desperately we need such knowledge.
© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016
To learn more about Mak Mak country, see the book we co-authored: Country of the Heart is published by Aboriginal Studies Press. Dr Linda Payi Ford’s brief summary of her research can be found on facebook (visit here).
To learn more about Lyn Watson’s work with dingoes at the Sanctuary and Research Centre, visit the Foundation home page (here).
Bruce Rose’s study is called Land Management Issues: Attitudes and Perceptions Amongst Aboriginal People of Central Australia (Alice Springs: Central Land Council, 1995). I have written about this study, and about the control of ‘ferals’ more generally in my essay ‘Judas Work: Four Modes of Sorrow’ (read here). To learn more about violent-care in conservation, see Thom van Dooren’s excellent article (read here)
Arian Wallach’s video is called ‘Dingo for Biodiversity Project 2016 Field Expedition’. It was published July 29, 2016 (view here).
It is widely accepted in the field of animal ethics that animals whose lives have been put to human uses deserve to live under conditions that offer quality of life commensurate with their needs as individuals and their nature as members of a species. This is well established in relation to zoo animals, for example.
Numerous essays on this site address pests, the suffering others, and ethics of care.