Tag Archives: Dingo

Dingo Nation

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’.

Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)
Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)

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.

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray

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.

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)

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.

Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)
Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)

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.

Dingo, Leo (CC)
Dingo, Leo (CC)

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)

ndad

Resources:

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.

 

Dingo Prayers

I have been packing my bags again, this time for a trip to the Northern Territory. Travelling with the ‘legendary bushman’ Darrell Lewis, the plan is to visit family, friends and flying-foxes in the Victoria River District. With the first National Day of Action for Dingoes (NDAD) on September 21 very much on my mind, I was also longing to see and hear a few dingos.

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray

My hopes were not too high. Last year in the Victoria River District many of the stations had been putting out the 1080, and in 2012 the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission had spread the poison around in the Judbarra-Gregory National Park.

As it turned out, I did not hear a single dingo. The only live one I saw was a forlorn and confused young creature who seemed, to my eyes, to personify the life of the lost in the aftermath of grievous trauma. Thoughts of the young fellow continue to trouble me, and there was more to come.

Out on the Victoria Highway, the main road between the Territory and the Kimberley, we encountered the dead and desecrated body of a handsome golden dingo.

Perhaps he had been deliberately run down on the road. It happens. But there was no ‘perhaps’ about the deliberation with which he had been taped up with packing tape on the roadside sign advising travellers to stop and refresh. He had become another trophy death in the war against dingoes.

There was also no doubt about the deliberation with which the sign had been shot at repeatedly, just as there was no way of knowing whether the shots had been put there before or after the dingo. The dents were very fresh.

We stopped the truck. I had picked some flowers earlier in the day, and I laid them on the ground beneath the dead body. There was a lot of blood, and the internal organs were bulging out from a belly wound. A long string of bloody saliva hung from his mouth. The flies were there, but the scent of decay was still faint. We were witness to a very recent event.

It is true that death often brings a sense of peace, and there was in this desecrated body the aura of a finality that goes beyond trauma. The golden fur still glowed as if life could return, but of course the rest of the body told otherwise. Confronted with the actual dignity of death, the vile evidence of desecration, and one’s attempt to imagine the deranged and brutalised humans who had done this, my offering of flowers seemed utterly inadequate and yet still necessary.

I do not know how to stay in the presence of dingoes that are being killed for no good reason. Their lives are being wasted, there is endless heartbreak for dingoes and for humans, and it is all pointless and relentless. I do not know how to stay with it, and nor can I turn away.

To honour the memory of this dingo and all his kin, and as a reminder of why we need NDAD, I am reprinting part of an essay I wrote in 2005 called ‘Dingo Prayers’.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo, Arian Wallach

“Often when I am in Dingo country, my thoughts stray to Old Tim Yilngayarri. His country was out in the savannah region of the Victoria River region, and he was the greatest Dingo boss I have known. He was the only person I’ve spoken with who not only told long complicated stories about Dingo Dreamings, but also spoke with dogs in daily life. As Old Tim told the stories, Dingoes made humans as humans; before that we were all one species.

They are today our closest relations on Earth, our ancestors, our contemporary kin, and the creatures who show us what it takes to be human. Tim was acutely aware of the injustices dogs and dingoes suffer at the hands of humans. In his stories the ancestral Dingoes give voice to their sense of lost reciprocity, and to current grievance: ‘”I been make them man and woman. Now you been drop me, put me in the rubbish dump'”. Old Tim called them by their kinship names: Mother and Father Dingo, and there have been times when I have too….

Across Australia there is a concerted war against dingoes.

In the Northern Territory they talk about dingo control, but in Queensland they aim for destruction. In spite of all the evidence to show that dingo baiting itself is creating the problems that it is supposed to be controlling, and in spite of evidence for the significant role dingoes play in sustaining biodiversity, the killing goes on. Discursively the war against dingoes has shifted to a war against ‘wild dogs’, as if it were more legitimate to kill dogs than to kill dingoes.

Queensland has taken the most vigorous approach to eradication. With its carefully maintained 2,500 kilometres of Dingo Barrier fence (now Wild Dog barrier fence), and its restrictions against travel along the fence, the commitment is clear. In the western regions of the state the fence runs along state borders and there are large gates that allow motorists through. You stop and get out of the truck to open the gate, and then you carefully close it behind you, and when you do that you can’t help but think of death. At each gate there are signs that read:

THIS GATE SHOULD BE CLOSED
AT ALL TIMES
IF FOUND OPEN PLEASE CLOSE
Wild Dog Destruction Board

For years I have been photographing Dingo fences, Dingo gates and 1080 signs in order to document for my own conscience the war against dingoes. Some of the Dingo fences had dead dingoes strung up near the gates or ramps, and I have photos of them too. For years, too, I have been removing the poor shattered bodies of dead dingoes from the road, tucking flowers under their bruised corpses, and saying a small farewell to them in apology for the disasters that run them down.

On a recent trip through Queensland I stopped to photograph a hand-lettered sign, white on green background, announcing that this is a Dingo Barrier Fence. Bureaucracy hadn’t gotten here yet, either to erect a formally printed sign or to change the words from Dingo to Wild Dog. On the ground in front of this homely little sign two flat rocks were set up, one on top of the other. Their placement was so casual and so unexpected that it could have meant anything.

The stones may be something or nothing, purposefully placed or just a whim. I took hold of that ambiguity and interpreted them as a prayer, and when I left, I put a round stone on top of the two flat ones. Since that day I’ve made other trips and started other prayers around sites that proclaim the war against dingoes. At Hawker Gate, Fortville Gate, Warri Gate and others, I have gathered stones and made unobtrusive little cairns. Wherever possible I add stone flakes, reminding whoever may take notice that the war against indigenous folk has been widely as well as brutally focussed.

For me, the stones are an intention, an apology, a counter-action, a visible prayer for a world in which all this killing can be stopped. I think of Old Tim and his dogs, his stories and his love: that Dingoes are our relations, our kin and co-creatures. The stones mark gratitude for him and his teaching.

Mother and Father Dingo, I say as I place yet another stone, precise words don’t exist for the heartbreak that this death work is piling up between us. Let me offer stones along with words, and pray for our fellow creatures in their torment. I mean to inscribe a human conscience that is shaped into action by Dingoes and by the people who hold and tell the stories. A human conscience that stands within, and affirms its opposition to, a world of wilful and deathful bloodshed.

But perhaps I am trying to put too many words on it.

The poet Rumi tells us ‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Think of it! A thousand ways –
One way, surely, is to make dingo prayers.”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: The original version of ‘Dingo Prayers’ was published in 2005 in Island, 103, pp. 6-10.

Information on the role of dingoes in biodiversity, and the havoc wreaked by 1080 is available in several of my earlier essays (view here), and on the excellent webpage developed by award-wining scientist Arian Wallach. A recent radio program in the Freedom of Species series (listen here) addresses matters concerning 1080.

I discuss the desecration of dingo bodies in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction.

 

 

 

‘Dog Bless’

I’m packing my bags again, this time for the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan where I will participate in the International Society of Ethnobiology Conference. Ever since I’ve known that Bhutan existed, I’ve longed to go there, and at last there is this wonderful conference, plus field trips. In using the word ‘wonderful’, I want to note that this is the first conference I have ever attended that has had a special section titled ‘sung sessions’, dedicated to ‘myth and ritual’. I can’t wait to be part of it, and of course I’ll provide a report.

Before I leave the country, though, I need to say a proper and loving farewell to Dinky the Singing Dingo. Dinky died a couple of weeks ago at age fourteen. He was described by many who loved him as a great ambassador for dingoes, as well as for tourism.

Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)
Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)

For much of his life, Dinky held forth at Stuarts Well Roadhouse south of Alice Springs.  The owner of the roadhouse, Jim Cotterill, told me that Dinky’s family was living in an area where 1080 was laid, and the nursing mother died. Some stockmen found the litter of six pups in a hollow under a sandhill. They put a trap outside, and it took about three days for the little pups to give up waiting for their mother and to come out. I do not understand why the stockmen took the pups back to the head station, since the purpose of 1080 was to kill them, but in any case, the owner knew that the Cotterills had a few animals at the pub. He rang and asked if they’d like a dingo. Jim said the pup was about six or eight weeks old when he got him. His pup-mates were all killed.

Jim’s daughters played the piano, and when they practiced, Dinky started singing along with them. Later in the pub Dinky hopped up on the piano and walked back and forth singing. According to Cotterill:

“Every time someone starts playing the piano, Dinky creates a din. He starts howling, or singing as we call it. With a chair alongside the piano, he will walk up onto the keys – we call that his playing. He stands there and sings.”

Dinky’s singing was absolutely awesome, especially as he was willing to allow people to get very close. I taped him so that I could hear him whenever I wanted to. Later, though, I couldn’t bear to listen. Not after I came to realise that I knew the song; I had listened to it and sung it many times. From the Babylonian victory right up until today, the song cries out the anguish of exile and diaspora, of those who can never go home again. Part of the beauty of such songs is their improbability: that beauty should burst forth in the midst of disaster and despair seems miraculous. And the beauty also expresses the challenge and heartbreak that emerge in consequence of the cruelty of those who seek the annihilation of others.

Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)
Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)

What does one do? I taped Dinky, looking into his deep mouth and listening to his sonorous voice as he called out for harmony. Later, I felt ashamed, and later still I felt desolate. I was awed to be in his presence, and I wanted to take a fragment home with me. I thought of him and wrote about him, and I thought and wrote about all the silencing that goes on as more and more animals are killed. I searched for a story that would do justice to Dinky and to all of his kin and kind.

Dinky had many comrades, both permanent and transient. Others who visited actually engaged in making song with him. That was what he was calling for, and the encounters that met him on his own musical ground are precious. My friend Hollis Taylor visited Dinky, and she sat at the piano and played with him. She understands music far better than I do, and she found that Dinky sang in perfect pitch. She understood, I think, that what he longed for was the family that makes song together. Hollis recorded the music she and Dinky made, reproducing this stunningly beautiful moment of encounter and recognition across species (listen here).

These moments of beauty, when members of two species join their songs together, are terribly rare. At this time many more dingoes and other animals are victims of 1080 poison. They are dying terrible deaths in outback Queensland, and all across Australia. The poison itself is the product of an industrial killing complex that brings great shame upon our society and our species, while bringing disaster upon our fellow singers.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, my email buddy Ray Pierotti is investigating the love-hate relationships humans have with the genus Canis. He writes that while humans and canids are capable together of becoming allies, some human groups turn against them. He concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’

Probably Dinky was in shock in his early months. Music gave him a place in the world.

After the death, Jim and his family took Dinky back to Stuarts Well and buried him in the country he came from, where he had grown up and lived most of his life. Something of Dinky lingers in that desert country, and my fervent hope is that there are still functioning dingo families out there. May their harmonies sing him home so that he may rejoin the family he lost so long ago.

Dog bless this troubled land.

Dog bless the dingoes who are grieving, and all those who are lost and disoriented. Dog bless the young ones who hardly know how to find their way in a world made perilous through human persecution. Dog bless the possibility of a future in which humans set aside their fear and anger, and find companionship with the creatures of earth.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland, by John Murray

Resources:

Hollis Taylor’s session with Dinky is the last track on her CD ‘Infidel’.

My concerns about cruelty to dingoes are explored in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. as well as in other essays on this site.

For more about Dinky, see http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/only-in-the-territory/rip-dinky-singing-dingo-and-great-ambassador-for-tourism-dies/story-fnk2tg5d-1226915630149

For more about 1080,  the radio program made by Emma Townshend is wonderful (listen here).

 

 

Good Friday, More Death

Another drought, another witch hunt in the form of dingo persecution. Another program to ‘improve’ the country through slaughter. I think this is called dysfunction: you keep on doing the same violent thing in the hope that somehow the issues you face will go away.

Young dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray
Young dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray

The Longreach region of western Queensland is rolling out their biggest and most expensive attack on dingoes ever.

According to the ABC report:

“Longreach Mayor Joe Owens says more than 30,000 square kilometres will be covered in a new wild dog baiting campaign, one of the largest in western Queensland’s history…. The $150,000 campaign is due to begin next week, with nearly 30 tonnes of meat being ordered for baiting.”

I expect that the money is coming from the drought relief funds. It is public money, and it is utterly astonishing that there seems to have been no public consultation on this. Discussions with dingo experts would have explained both the causes of the problems and offered some solutions. There are alternatives to the deathwork.

Consultations could also have addressed the matter of conserving endangered species in the area, and the role of dingoes in suppressing invasive species such a foxes and cats. We can expect a massive spurt of pressure on birds and other vulnerable creatures.

The ‘zombie politics’ reaction says if there’s a problem there’s an enemy, and that enemy must be persecuted and made to suffer, and that enemy must die. There are plenty of alternatives. Another way into dealing with problems is to try to understand their causes, try to implement practices that actually address the causes, and become adaptive. Landscapes change, climates change, markets fluctuate and consumer desires shift. Life changes, humans have to adapt. These are basic truths and it is difficult to understand why they are so hard to grasp.

Queensland has been at the forefront of cruelty in recent years, and this new program maintains that position. The other recent mass cruelty event in Queensland was the Charters Towers days of shame when flying-foxes were persecuted, tortured and killed. Noel Castley-Wright has made an excellent short film ‘State of Shame – Queensland’s Legislated Animal Cruelty’ (view here).

Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards

The big difference between Charters Towers and Longreach is that out on the pastoral properties most of the suffering will be take place out of sight of humans and their cameras. We will never know the full story of all this terrible suffering. We know it will happen, we know the shock and trauma will spread amongst the surviving dingoes, we know the poison will spread to other species who also get into it, we know the cascades of death will accelerate, and we know that these damaged ecosystems will be further degraded, losing ever more resilience. We can predict (and time will tell) that the next drought will be even more damaging.

Let there be no doubt: 1080 causes terrible, painful deaths. If you have ever wondered whether this is true, listen to the people who have witnessed its effects. Emma Townshend interviewed a few of them on her recent ‘Freedom of Species’ program about 1080 (listen here). These are people have seen animals die of 1080, and have resolved not to use it. They are admirable individuals who have confronted the suffering and decided it will not happen on their properties. The same program contains an excellent interview with Arian Wallach. Speaking as both a pastoralist and a scientist, she discusses the beneficial ecological role of dingoes as top predators.

Encountering this terrible persecution on Good Friday caused me to ask what a religious person might think about all of this. I remembered a heart-felt  comment that came to my site during the Charters Towers mass persecution. This is from Sharon Peterson. She describes herself as a Christian and an American.

“I’m a Creationist, so I see man as created by God and given stewardship over the Earth’s animals. That stewardship does not include cruelty, or senseless violence. Animals should be treated ethically and appreciated for their many unique qualities bestowed on them by our Creator. Just as He preserved man during the flood, He preserved every kind of animal. This shows Jews and Christians that God cares for all of His creatures. The Bible says, His eye is on the sparrow, which means He has compassion for even the smallest of His creatures.”

“No matter how we look at this, through humanistic or Biblical lenses, the answer is still the same. Man does not have the right to cruelly, and with great harm and mortality, attack animals.”

And then there are those wonderful words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At a time when humans’ mass slaughter of animals was becoming very clear and very troubling, he wrote the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1834), with its famous lines:

He prayeth best, who loveth best, All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.

The only good news on this bleak and sorry Friday was that not all the pastoralists in the Longreach region are taking part in the dingo baiting. Thus far, it seems, the law cannot force people to use poison on their properties. I imagine it takes a lot of guts to resist the majority view on poison, and as the article makes clear, those who refuse are already being set up as scapegoats for when the project fails. There is a lesson here: the ‘good shepherd’ not only takes care of his or her flock, but also protects the others who share in the life of the land.

There is great courage and dignity in refusing to join the deathwork mob. Pastoralists of honour, I salute you!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

The ABC Report can be found at:  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-17/longreach-unleashes-150k-wild-dog-baiting-campaign/5396628

In response to some of the comments questioning various aspects of the viability of pastoralism and alternatives to broacacres baiting, I thought it would be good share a link to a site in the usa that focusses on predator-friendly pastoralism and desertification. I think they are working toward something very important. Well worth reading! (view here)

Under The Mistletoe

Keystone species ‘punch above their weight’, to use a popular metaphor. They contribute more to their ecosystems than their numbers would indicate. Charismatic top predators such as wolves and dingoes are great examples of keystone species. They generate the trophic cascades that enhance whole systems of life including the geophysical foundations (discussed here). But as the fascinating ecologist Stephan Harding tells us:

‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)
Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)

To my mind one of the least likely ‘big players’ is mistletoe. Can a parasite actually be a keystone? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Not only is mistletoe good for kissing, this great cohort is a ‘keystone resource’.

Let us enter the entrancing world of mistletoe through symbiotic mutualism. A relatively non-technical definition is ‘two or more species that live together to their mutual benefit’. Although the idea of symbiosis was not the dominant paradigm for much of the 20th century, a growing body of research is showing that it complements competition and is utterly fundamental to life on earth and is part of how every creature lives. The great biologist Lynn Margulis declares:

‘We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet.’

Mistletoe, it turns out, is a highly eclectic and inclusive symbiotic mutualist. One of the main families all around the world, and a prominent player in Australia, is Loranthaceae – a family of mistletoe with about 1,000 member species. Most of them are ‘obligate, stem hemiparasites’. This means that they can only live by being attached to another plant (obligate), that they attach to stems (not roots), and that while they get water and some nutrients from their host, they are also able to photosynthesise.

The story of mistletoe mutualisms is all about entanglements of interdependencies, nutrient cycles, and seductions. Loranthaceae are themselves deeply dependent. First there is dependence on the tree or shrub on which they grow. No host, no parasite. Next, there is dependence on birds and bees to pollinate. No pollination, no seeds, no future generations. Then there is dependence on birds, in particular, to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. No dispersal, very little chance of germination and growth. And there is dependence on the leaf-eaters: no browsing means too much mistletoe growth leading to multiple deaths and disasters.

Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)
Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)

If mistletoes are to survive they have to entice and nourish their mutualists. The brightly coloured flowers are powerful attractors of pollinators, and the nectar is not only high in sugars, but also fats. Some of the Australian Loranthaceae produce nectar containing droplets of pure fat. The berries are highly visible, abundant and full of nutrition. Worldwide, many ‘folivores’ eat the nutritious leaves: deer, camels, rhinoceroses, gorillas and possums, amongst many others.

Their adaptive edge goes beyond mere provisioning and involves dazzling abundance.

The most awesome interdependence is between mistletoes and their mutualist mistletoe birds. ABC Science journalist Abbie Thomas wrote a delightful account:

Many mistletoes continue to flower in drought or during winter, when few other blossoms are available. Indeed, they are often the only local source of nectar and pollen during hard times. Packed with sugar and carbs, mistletoe fruits are good tucker, not just for the ubiquitous mistletoe bird, but also for cuckoo-shrikes, ravens, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, and even emus and cassowaries.

The mistletoe bird plays an important role in the mistletoe plant’s life cycle. The life of most mistletoes begins when a viscous, gluey seed drops onto a branch from the rear end of the brilliantly coloured black, red and white Mistletoe bird. Found throughout Australia, these birds are highly mobile and go wherever mistletoe is in fruit. Once eaten, the seed of the fruit quickly passes through the bird, emerging just 10-15 minutes later. The sticky seed fastens onto the branch, although many seeds fail to adhere, and are lost.

Within days, a tiny tendril emerges from the seed, growing quickly and secreting a cocktail of enzymes directly onto the corky outer protection of the branch. Unable to resist the onslaught, the bark yields a small ulcer-like hole into which the tendril probes, seeking its way down into the sappy tree tissue until it hits paydirt: the water and mineral-rich plumbing of the tree.’

Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)
Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)

Mutualisms are entanglements of interdependencies. The host tree supports its mistletoes physically and nutritionally, and it also buffers them against the vicissitudes of climate uncertainty. So, too, mistletoes support other species and provide a buffer against fluctuations and uncertainties. A study from Australia shows that mistletoes have extended nectar and seed producing periods, and that within a given region nectar and fruit are available from one or another mistletoe species all year round. In addition, as mistletoes are host to so many insect species, the insect-eating birds also get the benefit. Mammals join the feast, eating leaves, seeds and flowers. Possums are amongst the main leaf eaters, and are seasonally dependent on mistletoe.

Along with all the creatures who consume mistletoes, there is yet another entourage that benefits. Some animals build their nests in the mistletoe where they get some protection from the elements and predators. The action of the mistletoe itself increases hollows in trees, and so all the creatures that nest in hollows get the benefit. A further benefit is that their presence in trees alters the forest canopy and reduces the severity of bushfires.

In life systems, what goes around comes around. The host tree or shrub gets a steady rain of litter, droppings, and other organic matter that become part of the nutrient cycle, benefiting both the host and other plants in the area. In short, the benefits of mistletoes pass through the lives and bodies of many species before turning into nutrients to be drawn up by hosts and tapped into by mistletoes.

The relationships work because of the extravagant generosity of interdependence: highly nutritious nectar produced by bright showy flowers; shiny seeds loaded with carbs and sugars; mistletoe birds with their gorgeous red feathers, lovely song, and fertile poop; gliders and possums; butterflies who visit, eat, and reproduce.

Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)
Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)

There is an association between songbirds and mistletoe, and as new evidence is showing that both groups have their origins in ancient Gondwanaland, perhaps there is more to this old and beautiful alliance than is yet properly understood. I found myself totally captivated by a story shared by Andrew Skeoch, a sound recordist specialising in the sounds of nature. He recorded a mistletoe bird in full song, and inadvertently also recorded the fact that this talented little creature was singing and pooping at the same time. Something about this bright little bird creating and performing musically, while depositing mistletoe seeds securely wrapped in glue and fertiliser seems almost magical in its joyfulness (listen to the birdsong here).

It is good to recall that there is an old European history of respect. Mistletoe is sacred to Druids (contemporary and ancient), and it is still a customary Christmas decoration. Hung over the threshold, it invites people to kiss. In earlier days it was said to be able to find buried treasure, keep witches away and prevent trolls from souring milk! It would be good also to recall that Aboriginal Australians respect mistletoe as a food for humans and for many other creatures. In North Australia, where so much of my learning has taken place, people give berries to children, but adults avoid them. Perhaps they are aware that growing children have a particular need for the high nutritional value of mistletoe.

At this time, many people think mistletoe is a pest. The term ‘parasite’ conjures negative imagery, but the larger issue, at least in Australia, is that in some areas mistletoes are over-abundant. Trees are dying, and something has gone askew because mistletoe cannot thrive if the host dies. The renowned science writer Tim Low tells us that the loss of possums, those folivores who love their mistletoe, is a key. “Foxes, by preying on mistletoe-munching possums,” set up conditions where mistletoes can grow out of control. Possums are only prey to foxes when they come down out of the trees. Along roadsides and on farms, they are at risk. Within forests where they can remain up in the trees possums thrive and mistletoe is contained.

Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)
Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)

So, what would partnership rewilding be like if the focus were on mistletoes and their ‘ground up’ trophic dynamics?

First, it would involve fewer foxes and more possums. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of the dingo. As I have been reporting in other essays, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that dingoes reduce the numbers of invasive species such as foxes and cats, and promote the viability of smaller native marsupials such as possums.

Second, it would involve on-going health and reproductive capacity of more extensive stands of trees. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of flying-foxes. Their pollination is utterly crucial to the future of forests and woodlands in Australia, and their lives and livelihoods are central to partnership rewilding.

Third, it would involve changes in human thought and action. Not everyone thinks mistletoes are innate pests, but, as the great mistletoe scientist David Watson indicates, “pretty much all of the public’s perceptions about Mistletoe are fundamentally incorrect.” I want to be clear that Aboriginal people are not likely to hold these misperceptions. Here, as with other matters, the limitations of the mainstream public cannot readily be attributed to everyone. Having said that ~~

I want to set up camp, metaphorically at least, under the mistletoe. Here the kiss of life is sensuous, continuous, and diverse.

I hope others will join me, and I rather hope we won’t get pooped on! Let us open our lives to the great, complex, on-going, joyful, benefit-rich, exuberant and dazzling generosity that holds entangled interdependencies together. A camp in the midst of all these mutualisms is place of coming-forth for those whose flows of life and death are achieved together. These entangled partnerships have co-evolved over millions of years, and if the human newcomer can partner in with them, we may yet become part of ecosystems that will hold together in this time of flux and uncertainty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

This is the third in a series of essays on partnership rewilding. The others include: Partnership Rewilding with Flying-Foxes, and Partnership Rewilding with Predators. 

Resources

Most of the scientific information in this essay is drawn from David Watson’s outstanding work. One of his main articles is free online: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/07/03/rspb.2012.0856.full

Another is not open access except for the abstract: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.32.081501.114024

Abbie Thomas’s article is available online: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/03/05/2044992.htm

Lynn Margulis’s book is Symbionic Planet (a New Look at Evolution).

The book by Tim Low mentioned in this essay is New Nature.

Information on dingoes as top predators is available in previous essays, and is the subject of a recent article by Arian Wallach, published in The Conversation. (read here)

My essay on flying-foxes and the kiss of life is not freely available online but I am happy to share copies if asked.

Partnership Rewilding with Predators

Elk near Jackson Hole, Photo: Dave Rose
Elk near Jackson Hole,
Photo: Dave Rose

My father, Dave Rose, was fascinated with the elk that came down out of Yellowstone National Park during the winter months. He took us kids to Jackson Hole to see them, and he persuaded the guy with the hay to let us ride on the trailer while he went through the herd dumping fodder. Dad took slides (and more slides). Sometimes it seemed as if every slide show was all about elk!

Only much later did I learn that the National Elk Refuge was founded in 1912 by local ranchers who were concerned that this great herd might go extinct. Its migration routes were disrupted by ranches and the town.  Conflict between ranchers and elk over hay led to killing, and there was mass starvation.

The establishment of a winter refuge adjacent to Yellowstone, with funds for fodder, was an early action in America’s long and often odd conservation movement. For almost one hundred years wolves were persecuted. Herbivores were hunted. Still today at the National Elk Refuge, ‘both bison and elk populations are managed through refuge hunt programs. Permits specific to each hunt are required and are obtained online or through the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.’

When we went there all those years ago, it was pretty easy to see that this great migratory herd had nowhere to go. Problem and solution seemed pretty clear. But if Dad had read Aldo Leopold’s essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ he might have suspected that there was more to the story. Leopold’s brief, influential essay starts with him killing a wolf, as people did in those days, and then working through the implications of predator loss, overabundance of deer, stripped vegetation, and barren ground.

American wolves in captivity
American wolves in captivity

For centuries mainstream European-origin culture has feared, despised, and sought to annihilate wolves and other predators. The outcome, if one can use such neutral term to describe the result of all this suffering, has been extinctions and extirpations. If Dad had asked about wolves, he would have come upon a story of vicious, cruel persecution that would have deeply saddened his kind and generous heart.

As if in counterpoint to all the death work that has gone into efforts to eradicate wolves, conservation biologists are discovering that the top carnivores have ecological roles that benefit numerous species of flora and fauna. This is counter-intuitive thinking for western peoples, but it is actually integral to indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. The novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong tells the story in the context of Mongolia: kill the wolves and you kill the grazing lands, and so you kill the herding way of life.

‘Trophic cascade’ is the scientific term for ecological processes that ripple from one species through others, and through whole ecosystems.

This process has been documented with the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after a seventy year absence. The consequences are completely stunning. A recent video narrated by George Monbiot tells the story in words and images (view here). It is helpful to know that Monbiot uses the word ‘deer’ where Americans would use the word ‘elk’ for the species Cervus elaphus. I don’t want to spoil the drama of the video, so I’ll just make the point that a trophic cascade starting with a top predator ripples through other animal species, plant species, and ultimately even through the physical geography of their ecosystem.

Furlined/Creative Commons
Furlined/Creative Commons

The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone is an example of the new thinking that is often called ‘rewilding’. It addresses ecosystem restoration on a large scale; there is no attempt at retrieving primeval ‘wilderness’ – that would be impossible, and if it were possible it would be counterproductive. Rather, rewilding aims to let ecological processes start up again.

The development of rewilding programs in the USA depends on three key strategies: cores, corridors and carnivores. The carnivores are the first key, as Monbiot narrates in the Yellowstone video. If they are healthy, the benefits flow on through the system.

The second key, then, recognises that the top predators require adequate range to sustain themselves across generations. The third key is corridors; it recognises the fact cores can become death traps unless the animals can move. This is so genetically, and equally because ecosystems and climate always offer the unexpected. With climate change, even more unexpected changes are (paradoxically) expected to occur. Animals need the versatility and flexibility in order to be able to respond to change.

Carnivores with ample area and ample connectivity will regulate ecosystems in ways that achieve complexity, diversity, and resilience.

So far, so good, but now the news turns alarming. An extremely important recent publication addresses these issues in the context of climate change and the accelerating extinction event now underway. A great number of the large carnivores that ecosystems need are themselves vulnerable to extinction or local extirpation. The authors state that in light of all the recent evidence ‘alongside climate change, eliminating large carnivores is one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature.’

Photo: John Murray
Photo: John Murray

A good section of the study is dedicated to dingoes, and it summarises the work of Arian Wallach and the other dingo scientists whose work last year was awarded the Eureka Prize. Their conclusion: ‘Overall, the suppression of dingo has probably contributed to the endangerment and extinction of small marsupials and rodents over much of the continent.’ It has also enabled the expansion of a range of invasive species over much of the continent.

The biggest threat to large carnivores is the human species. Finding ways of co-existence is therefore absolutely crucial. Not only is the work that carnivores do ‘underappreciated’ (the authors’ words); in many areas, as is well known, predators are actively persecuted. Many pastoralists have formed the view that livestock and predators are incompatible. Having set up an ‘us or them’ opposition, they destroy the predators.

Dingo Barrier Fence
Dingo Barrier Fence

Here in Australia the conflict is between cattle and sheep farmers on the one hand, and dingoes on the other. I wish they would all read Wolf Totem, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps they will listen to the recent  Bush Telegraph radio report ‘Could dingoes actually help farmers?’ (listen here) The program starts with a fascinating interview with Lyn Watson of the Dingo Discovery Centre speaking about dingo physiology and behaviour. It concludes with Arian Wallach, the dingo research scientist and one of the authors of the influential study of carnivores and climate change. She carries out research on Evelyn Downs Station, a working cattle station (ranch) that is one of the few predator-friendly ranches in Australia.

In the radio interview Arian reminds listeners that dingoes are top predators here in Australia: ‘ …  the health of the ecosystemits biodiversity, its productivity, the condition of it’s soil, the rivers, the endangered speciesare all tightly linked up with the dingo.’ She then very precisely changes the story from ‘us vs them’ (pastoralists vs. dingoes) to interconnection. Rather than barriers, there are connections. Cattle and sheep need biodiversity, dingos sustain biodiversity, therefore pastoralists, livestock and dingoes are all interconnected and are, in effect, on the same side.

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)

Arian and Lyn also discuss the problems that arise when dingo ‘control’ (poison, trapping, shooting) creates homeless, unsocialised creatures who are effectively out-of-control. It is a truly vicious circle, and one of our great challenges is how to break the cycle of violence without destroying either pastoralists, or livestock, or dingoes.

To return to partnership rewilding, therefore, I see hope in the idea that the best thing we humans can do for the earth at this time is to work in alliance with other creatures whose lives regulate, pollinate, and otherwise sustain flourishing ecosystems. In relation to flying-foxes I proposed the establishment of vast corridors or networks of flowering trees. ‘Rewilding’ the open savannah woodlands would enable flying-foxes to sustain themselves and continue their work of pollination. Those same corridors could also be habitat for dingoes and many other creatures, and as core areas are maintained, and more corridors are established, the country can become criss-crossed with edges and zones of co-existence.

Life on earth is not ours to destroy, and nor is it ours to engineer solely for ourselves.

Partnership Rewilding acknowledges and works with interconnections. At this time, most ecosystems are massively perturbed and there is a huge role for humans in working to re-establish favourable conditions. The ethics of multi-species alliances thus have several sides. Humans may at times be active partners, and at times may simply need to get out of the way so that others can do the work they are so beautifully evolved to do.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Arian Wallach has just published and excellent article in ‘The Conservation’ (read here)

Her recent interview on Freedom of Species is also relevant and insightful. (listen here)

Resources:

Aldo Leopold’s essay is available online: http://nctc.fws.gov/resources/knowledge-resources/wildread/thinking-like-a-mountain.pdf

The horror of the violence against wolves is conveyed, along with much else, by Barry Lopez in his great book Of Wolves and Men.

Mongolian herders’ relationships with wolves are analysed in Natasha Fijn’s ethnography Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia. She is a terrific film-maker as well, and films from her Mongolian experience are also available (view here).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ray Pierotti, author of Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, for the wolf photos and for clarification of the elk/deer nomenclature.

How To Love A “Pest”

I laughed when I read the Canberra Times headline ‘Liberals environment spokeswoman suggests eradication of native bird species’. It turns out that some of the spokeswoman’s constituents are annoyed by the migratory cuckoo known as the common koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), and because they’re annoyed they want something done. She herself referred to the birds as ‘imported pests’, and wanted them managed or eradicated.

Koel, wikimedia commons
Koel, wikimedia commons

Surely not, I thought! It is true that the call of the male koel is loud and insistent, but let’s be honest: homo sapiens is the only animal to have invented the two-stroke engine and used it to acoustically assault the suburbs. Mowers, whipper-snippers, angle-grinders, chain-saws and other DIY tools of destruction and construction out-perform koels all year round.

Actually, I like koels. I didn’t get to hear them arrive in Sydney this year, and I felt deprived. But like or dislike, can anyone seriously entertain the idea that just because something is annoying is ought to be gotten rid of?

The answer, unfortunately, is ‘yes’, as one quickly learns from a visit to the website of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). CRC’s are a government initiative that links industry, universities, stakeholders, and others for the purpose of furthering knowledge and capacity on matters of national concern. The Invasive Animals CRC has as its focus vertebrates that are deemed to be invasive either because they are non-native or because they have become identified as a ‘pest’, or both. There we learn that ‘The Invasive Animals CRC creates new technologies and integrated strategies to reduce the impact of invasive animals on Australia’s economy, environment, and people’. Technologies, when we explore the term, turn out to be a range of methods involving both killing and genetic engineering to reduce or eliminate reproductive capacity.

One of the key terms is ‘pest’. Many thoughtful persons have noted that  once an animal is declared ‘pest’, or ‘vermin’, or even ‘invasive’, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans. As my friend Thom van Dooren discovered in his research on foxes and the penguin colony at Manly in Sydney, those animals deemed not to belong slip into a category of those whose ‘lives are not legitimate lives within the context of contemporary ecologies, and as such … their deaths are not only condoned (as they often are in legislation), but also in an important sense demanded for the sake of any genuine conservation’.

Killing for conservation is certainly problematic, and advocates of compassionate conservation argue that it is inherently wrong. But the problems with ‘pests’ go much deeper. To quote educational materials provided via the CRC website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ From this open-ended definition, decisions are made about which lives matter and which lives don’t.

The Invasive Animals CRC website gives you a link to feral.org.au, and there you really start to learn about the nitty-gritty of decision-making and killing. The PestSmart YouTube Channel offers short tutorials on all manner of killing. You can learn, for example, how to rip up rabbit warrens.

Rabbit Photo: Arian Wallach
Rabbit
Photo: Arian Wallach

What you don’t learn is just how dreadful this method is for the rabbits. My friend Freya Mathews, a leading environmental philosopher, encountered this method when she began investigating ways of removing rabbits from her bio-conservation property. In her words:

‘Ripping involves the mechanical destruction of warrens by large blades attached to a tractor. I had rejected ripping earlier on account of the impact of the heavy ripping vehicles on soil and vegetation, but now that the contractors were more or less insisting, I thought I had better investigate the effect of the procedure on rabbits themselves. To my horror I found that in the course of ripping, rabbits inside the warrens are themselves ripped – they are simply sliced up, with those that are not killed outright being left to die, buried alive with appalling injuries, all conveniently out of sight. I had been willing to kill rabbits for the sake of ecological restoration, but this was way too much – it was torture, brutal beyond imagining. Yet this is one of the standard methods of rabbit management, routinely practised across the country, prescribed in all the government literature and on all the official web sites.’

Other video tutorials show how to set mechanical injectors into bait so that target animals (foxes, dingoes) will be orally injected with 1080 or cyanide. You learn that injectors don’t replace trapping and aerial baiting, they are just one tool among many.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo
Photo: Arian Wallach

You don’t learn that the World League for Protection of Animals has concluded that 1080 poison (sodium monofluoroacetate), which is banned in almost every country in the world, should also be banned in Australia ‘not only for its cruelty, but also because we simply do not know what might be long term effects of continually pouring substantial amounts of the poison into the environment’. 1080 is one of the main poisons used against dingoes, other canines and foxes, and is also used against rabbits and other herbivores. More specifically: ‘1080 poison is a slow killer. When ingested the animal suffers a prolonged and horrific death. … They may convulse and haemorrhage blood from ears, nose and mouth, respiratory muscles fail and they suffocate.’

As this group noted in an earlier publication, ‘aside from the physical pain endured over the many hours before death, the terror, fear and anxiety felt by these animals is unimaginable.’

Along with these and many more kill-focussed tutorials, feral.org offers educational materials for primary and secondary school teachers. You can download a PowerPoint for use in teaching children in years five and six. According to the site: ‘Pest Tales provides primary school teachers with a complete and up to date resource which highlights pest animal species in Australia, their impact and current ways of managing the damage they inflict on the environment, economy and people.’

I worked my way through the slides with mounting horror. The first question for the children to consider is: what is a pest? The first set of answers includes labels and photos: feral (photos of cat, goat, etc), exotic/introduced (cane toad, etc), invasive (fox, rabbits, horses), and pest (magpie, flying-foxes and possum). The definition of pest is ‘an animal detrimental to humans or human interests’, and the explanation of detriment is that ‘a pest is a matter of opinion’. If anyone was wondering where and how children learn human-centrism, this PowerPoint is a great resource. Within the parameters, human-centrism is unavoidable – if a pest is an animal detrimental to humans (actually, to be more objective, to some humans), then humans are the ones who  decide the animal is a pest.

It becomes clear just how impoverished this vision of animals and ecosystems really is when we stop to  consider the fact that there is no real engagement with population dynamics and Australian ecosystems.

Rabbits, wikimedia commons
Rabbits, wikimedia commons

It is difficult to imagine a more shallow approach to matters of life and death than to sidestep ethics and ecosystems, and portray complex issues as if they were opinions.

Another slide labelled ‘Run Rabbit Run’ lists all the methods that have been used to try to eradicate rabbits: poison baiting (ground and aerial), trapping, fencing, shooting, ferreting, hunting, snaring, scaring, release of predators such as foxes, fumigating warrens, ripping warrens, blasting warrens with explosives, disease – myxomatosis, disease – rabbit haemorrhagic disease, introduction of fleas to increase spread of disease. Please remember that this list of horrors  is being taught to young children.

Since none of these methods has actually been successful, and since no alternatives are offered, the future looks likely to be as steeped in suffering as has  the past. And what the children don’t learn is that the one predator that would have a good chance of keeping rabbits in check – the dingo – is itself considered a pest.

These websites and their ‘information’ offer evidence of the widespread, bureaucratised, tax-payer funded, university-based, industry-supported, socially sanctioned pursuit of killing as a way of inhabiting the land. The fact that the manufacturer of 1080, Animal Control Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd, is a participant in the CRC is known as industry collaboration, and is therefore not seen as collusion. The killing is cloaked in the language of managerial efficiency, but the iconography tells the other story – of vilification, persecution, and justification.

Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park
Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park

At the end of the day there can be no doubt: frequently what passes for a job well done is actually another act of the most terrible cruelty in an on-going saga of death.

I keep coming back to the normalisation of all this death work, and to the mind-set that takes it for granted that if a non-human animal is annoying, ‘something’ should be done. To return to the koels in Canberra: the Liberals environmental spokeswomen was subjected to a fair bit of ridicule, but if we look at the issue from the viewpoints presented by the Invasive Animals CRC and its related websites, right was on her side. People were annoyed. The koels were doing it. They were, therefore,  pests (at least to some people). And as pests, they were a problem to be managed or eradicated.

An alternative to this mind-set is readily available.

It is not at all difficult to love the migratory koels. There comes a time when winter is on the way out, but spring hasn’t quite arrived. There are big winds, and often they are cold. In Sydney it feels like we will never warm up. And then – riding those huge winds, the koels arrive.

When I hear that call my heart lifts. A YouTube clip captures it nicely, and I love knowing that the name koel is onomatopoetic. This bird is readily identifiable and it tells a great story: the big air and ocean currents that govern the weather are shifting.

Approaching rain, outback Australia
Approaching rain, outback Australia

I remember the call from the Northern Territory which is where I first heard it. There, koels are also called rain birds, or storm birds, and they arrive in advance of the wet season. Their great travel path brings them from southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia where they breed and spend the summer before flying back in the autumn. The effort it takes to fly those great distances, coming with one set of winds and leaving when the winds shift again, shows us the absolute grace of nomadic mobility. The birds fit beautifully into the large circulations of life on earth.

I agree with my Aboriginal teachers – these birds bring good news. And the fact is, they leave. They have to leave if they are to come back again with more news. This is what they do – every year. The departure and the return are the rhythms of nomadic mobility, and in this time of rapid environmental change there is consolation in the fact that the winds and currents, and thus the koels, continue to live out their patterns and connections.

Blessed are those who arrive with good news, and blessed too is their departure.  May we all learn to say both ‘welcome’ and ‘fare thee well’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Apologising to Dingoes

‘A Pardon for the Dingo’ is a short article just published in the journal Scienceand sent to me by my friend Eileen Crist, author of the excellent book Images of Animals.

Dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,
Photo: John Murray

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.

Dingo in Arnhem Land Photo: Bill Griffith
Dingo in Arnhem Land
Photo: Bill Griffith

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?

'Trapped Dingo on Terachy Station, Adavale, Q’, Pastoral Review, 1925
‘Trapped Dingo on Terachy Station, Adavale, Q’, Pastoral Review, 1925

 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.

084

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)

 Resources

For an interesting analysis of dingoes and rabbits, see the article by the philosopher Freya Mathews: ‘The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics‘.

Dingo Research Wins Top Award

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (A. Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (A. Wallach)

The election results here in Australia are not good news for wildlife, ecosystems that have sustained minimal human impact, and all the human beings who research, rescue, love, care for, and defend animals, plants and ecosystems that are at risk.

In dark times we need stories that help us sustain our moral compass, as Hannah Arendt told us many years ago. It was really great, therefore, to see that dingo research has won one of the prestigious Eureka Prizes organised by the Australian Museum. The award is timely both because of the quality of the research, and because of the social context of dingo vilification.

In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote about the fact that there is in Australia a concerted war against dingoes. On the physical front, the war is being waged with 1080 poison, traps and bullets. On the propaganda front, the war is being waged around questions of sheep and cattle security, and presents itself as a war of terror, emblemised by hanging the dead bodies of dingoes and other canines from trees, posts and fences.

Research tells a different story. When they are not under attack, dingoes behave as top predators: they regulate their own populations and promote biodiversity within their territories. Much of our knowledge about dingoes as top predators comes from the work of a dedicated team. On September 4, 2013 the Eureka Prize for Environmental Research was awarded to the team and the research.

The team: Professor Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania; Dr Michael Letnic, University of New South Wales; Dr Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Dr Arian Wallach, James Cook University; and Adam O’Neill, Evelyn Downs Station.

The citation: “Professor Chris Johnson and his team’s work is conservation with bite! It has shown how the dingo helps sustain biodiversity in Australian ecosystems. It points the way to improved environmental management in which the dingo could be used to aid the recovery of degraded lands and therefore help protect threatened species.”

My friend Arian Wallach and I have had many fascinating conversations about life, death, dingoes, ecosystem cascades, and more. She and Adam O’Neill now live at Evelyn Downs station where they both manage the cattle and carry out dingo research. From her place on the station, Arian is advocating a wonderful proposal: Predator-Friendly Pastoralism.

Here it is in her own words:

“Evelyn Downs started out as a dingo-recovery study site, which we visited twice for annual surveys of mammals, plants and the dingoes of course. It was after the second field trip that Adam was invited to take on the position of station manager, and we snatched the opportunity to live in and manage one of our study sites. The most difficult aspect of our work over the years has been finding areas that are free of persecution (aka 1080-baiting) for an extended period of time. Living in our study site provides a measure of protection for the dingoes, stability for our research, and continual interactions and observations of this changing ecosystem. Rather than visiting our study site once a year, we are there every day to see and document the recovery of the dingo population and the cascading effect this has on other wildlife, plants – and the cattle. Evelyn Downs, together with a handful of other pioneering pastoral stations across the country, are the first to trial predator-friendly pastoralism. Perhaps one day soon, alongside labels such as “organic” and “free-range”, we’ll have a new “predator-friendly” label with a little image of a howling dingo on the package too… “

Thank you Arian!

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)