The English natural philosopher and novelist C.S. Lewis wrote that we all yearn to know other bloods, the other creatures of the world, and that this is a singular and definitive characteristic of our species. Coming as I do from a family in which this yearning was encouraged, I was in complete agreement with Lewis long before I ever read him. I grew up in a household that always included other bloods—dogs, cats, mules, cows, mice, newts, raccoons, crows, bears, badgers—and I had parents and other adult kin who were hell-bent on pursuing a great variety of zoological interests, practical and theoretical, recreational and vocational. Observations, speculation and arguments about the ways of animals, birds, fish and so forth were as frequent and taken as seriously in our house as discussions of politics, sports or economics are in other families.
Some 45 years ago my father gave me a good reference book on the mammals of the world. Within a year or so I had practically committed it to memory, and while doing so, I became acquainted with the Tasmanian devil. Sitting in the boglands of southern Michigan, I fixed this odd, oddly named creature in my mind as the symbol of the zoologically exotic and mysterious. In much the same way, the animal's native haunt, the island of Tasmania, came to represent for me the absolute in foreign geography. Yearning after the sight of this beast and its island did not, I think, become an obsession or the ultimate ambition of my life. Nonetheless, the notion persisted that if things worked out right, someday I would cross the world to Tasmania, search for the devil and, if lucky, look upon one. Things did work out right, and I recently made my way to Tasmania, accompanied by my friend Sam Wolmer.
Tasmania is the most southerly state of Australia and very nearly the southernmost outpost of the inhabited world. Because there's nothing much south of the island except penguins and students of ice, residents of Tasmania assume, reasonably enough, that anyone who finds his way there has specific reasons for doing so and hasn't stopped by casually on the way to someplace else. In consequence, Tasmanians, while polite, are persistently curious about the motives of travelers, particularly one who was a bit reluctant to admit he had come some 10,000 miles merely to look at an oddly named animal.
Jean Taranto is more or less professionally curious about visitors. She works variously as a wholesale travel agent, a publicist and a marketing specialist for tourist enterprises. A former BOAC stewardess, she settled in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, because, she says, "there's no place nicer." Her forte, as she puts it, is "organizing things"—parties, dinners, meetings between people who should know each other. "The American consulate uses me a bit for things of that nature," she says. It was because of this and an introduction from a mutual friend at the U.S. embassy in Canberra, Australia's capital, that our paths crossed. In a seafood bar overlooking Hobart harbor she asked Sam and me what our business was and how she might advance it.
"Well, it's a kind of a free-form expedition," I replied. "Sam here is an apple grower in Pennsylvania, and he wants to do some research on your orchards."
The large, hairy young bloke in question was at that moment vigorously researching a sizable pile of Tasmanian crayfish. By temperament Sam is loud, iconoclastic, disrespectful, disputatious, observant and curious, all of which makes him a stimulating traveling companion. His occupation permits him occasionally to go off on eccentric quests to improbable places. Most important, because of his physique and a lot of rigorous on-the-job training, he's conditioned to pick up and lug very heavy things that his seniors find tedious and undignified to carry.
Tasmania is known as Apple Island because it used to produce most of Australia's apples and still grows about 25% of them. Therefore, though she hadn't previously met one, Jean didn't find a visiting pomologist implausible and didn't think organizing a tour of local orchards would be difficult.
"And yourself, Bil," she asked, getting on with it. "I'm told you're a journalist. Are you working on this trip?"
"Tell Ms. Taranto about it," Sam suggested maliciously, surfacing from a midden of crayfish parts. Because of my discomfiture in recent experiences with Australian consular, customs and immigration officials concerning "reason for visit," Sam was anticipating being entertained by the rest of the conversation.
"Well, quite often I write about natural history," I said, scrambling. "Tasmania is very interesting in that way—so many endemic species, parallel evolution and so forth...."
"Of course," Jean said, "but what is it you'd like to see?"
There seemed no way to avoid the truth any longer. "There's a lot I'd like to see, the rain forest, wombats, platypuses," I said. "But I—or rather we, Sam and I—what we'd most like to meet is a Tasmanian devil."
"The little beast in the cartoons?" Jean whooped with surprise. "I have a friend in films you should meet."
I shook my head.
"I may be one of the few people in the English-speaking world who has never seen that cartoon," I said. "I never even knew it existed until my daughter told me a Tasmanian devil plays straight man to Bugs Bunny. No, it's the real animal we want to find, out in the bush."
Jean raised her eyebrows.
"It's really not all that weird an idea," I said. "Like kangaroos. I'll bet nearly every tourist who comes to Australia wants to see a kangaroo. You people advertise the hell out of them in your travel propaganda."
"We do, rather."
"My thing is about the same, only more specialized," I said. I offered some disjointed biographical notes. Included was some digressive and gratuitous information on how and why to domesticate a badger. Also some confused mention of C.S. Lewis.
"Gorgeous," said Jean soothingly. "You explain it beautifully. Sometimes I'm so slow."
Jean Taranto isn't slow. Whether she had been persuaded of my interest in Tasmanian devils or had decided she could go along with a gag as well as anybody, she phoned the next day to say that she had an acquaintance who might be helpful, a young man named John Hamilton, a former journalist. A year or so ago he and his wife had bought property on the coast, 60 miles south of Hobart. On part of that land they had built a private zoo, to which they charged admission. Jean assumed that the Hamiltons had devils there, because the name of their enterprise was the Tasmanian Devil Park. I said it sounded like a good place to start. It would be good to take a look at the animals in confinement before we went thrashing around in the bush after feral ones.
The Hamiltons, we discovered, did have devils, a pair of yearlings that had been trapped by the Tasmanian wildlife service. During the daylight hours they crouched in the far corner of a fenced enclosure, glaring balefully at the cash customers. With a wry chauvinism, Tasmanians often claim that their devil is the ugliest animal in the world. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, but it's understandable why this one is commonly held. At a distance—from which devils look their best—they are merely undistinguished, being low-slung, stumpy creatures covered with jet-black hair sometimes splashed with white blazes across the chest and rump. In conformation, they somewhat resemble ill-formed bear cubs or wolverines. Closer examination destroys these and other analogies. A Tasmanian devil doesn't look much like any other single species but rather like bits and pieces of several stuck together without regard for beauty, symmetry or function. My own first flash impression when John Hamilton gingerly presented one for inspection was, Mutant!—thinking of the sort that might proliferate in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
For its body size—a large one is three feet long and weighs between 20 and 25 pounds—a devil's head is enormous and would seem to fit better on a wolf or an alligator. The devil has evolved, for reasons to be considered shortly, so that it's little more than a huge set of jaws set on a modest body. These jaws are studded with teeth that are not only exceptionally large but also numerous; a devil in good working order has 44 choppers, sometimes 46. A dog has 42, a cat 30. It isn't difficult to study this dentition. Somewhat like the python, the devil is so hinged as to be able to open its mouth very wide, and it does this often, being habitually slack-jawed and gapish. Also, it's a steady drooler.
The devil has prominent, almost hairless, batlike ears, small mean eyes, the long, coarse whiskers of a big rat and a piggish, dripping nose. Its body is lumpish, overlaid in maturity with heavy layers of fat. Its legs are bandy, with the rear ones giving the impression of being disproportionately long, lending a jacked-up appearance. The devil doesn't look to be—and isn't—agile or graceful. Its ordinary pace is a shamble. When it needs to move more rapidly, it lurches. Its tail is about a foot long, fat at the base, very nearly bare and pointed at the end like that of a snapping turtle. Unlike the tails of most mammals, it isn't as much a flexible appendage as it is a fixed extension of the body, hardly more waggable than a nose or an ear.
Like people, some animals—English bulldogs come to mind—are able to overcome ugliness with charming personalities. The Tasmanian devil isn't among these. Those who know the devil best claim that its behavior is more repugnant than its looks. Technically, the devil is a carnivore, but it isn't equipped to be a frequent or effective predator, and certainly not a bold or dashing one.
We met up with only one person in Tasmania who had directly observed a devil committing a true act of predation. This was a park ranger, Oliver Vaughn, who was based at an isolated station in western Tasmania. One winter, when the snow cover was deep, Vaughn's wife had begun feeding wildlife around the cabin. One morning a wallaby (the medium-sized kangaroo: about 3½ feet tall and weighing around 40 pounds) was sitting upright in the snow munching on a slice of bread when a devil lurched out from under the cabin and grabbed the wallaby. "He seized it by the throat," Vaughn recalls, "appeared to kill it immediately and commenced to bolt it down head first. The width and power of those jaws is remarkable. Normally a devil wouldn't be able to grapple a wallaby, but this wallaby was perhaps made unwary by its hunger or handicapped by the snow."
Ordinarily, devils are scavengers and—to give them their due—extremely effective ones. Keen senses of hearing and smell enable them to locate edibles quickly, and almost anything they find they can grind up with their powerful jaws and teeth. Stockmen say that devils will completely consume a dead cow or sheep, eating bones, teeth, hooves and horns. Such scavenging feats aren't performed by a single animal but by groups of a dozen or more, although they don't travel in packs but are drawn one by one to carcasses. They behave like a brawling mob, having, so far as anyone knows, virtually no social organization or restraining instincts.
While they are not attack animals, devils will take living creatures that are too young, old, enfeebled or immobile to escape them. In Tasmania there is a sizable commercial trade in the skins of wallabies and the silky-furred native possums, and trappers have to get to their snares almost as soon as they are sprung to beat the devils to the catch. On one occasion, a sheep farmer in the northern part of the island brought his animals into a shearing shed with a slatted floor, underneath which, unbeknownst to anyone, several devils were lurking. They weren't discovered and disposed of until several sheep whose feet had slipped through the slats had had their lower legs gnawed off.
Several times a day Hamilton puts on a "devil show" for the benefit of his customers. He enters the enclosure and gives a lecture on the devils' ferocious habits. Then, while making it clear that he's attempting something of some risk, he lures or teases one of the captives out of its corner and picks it up by its tail, which makes a convenient and safe handle, the animal being incapable of swiveling back to get at the hand that holds it. The devil thus held does the best it can, hissing, gasping, drooling and gnashing its teeth. Now and then it may give a wavering screech, a captive version of the wild, eerie call that gave the species its popular name. Before the first settlers were well acquainted with the screech's maker, the sound coming out of the bush struck them as being truly devilish. After seeing more of the animal, there seemed no reason to change the name. Hamilton's devil demonstration pleases his crowds, confirming their beliefs about the savagery of the beast.
There is another private zoo in the northern part of Tasmania (usually called Tassie—pronounced TAZ-zie—by Australians), operated by Peter Wright, a former professional diver, and his wife. The Wrights also have devils that have been presented to them by the wildlife service, but they raise theirs by hand, more or less as pets. Their devil show involves finger-feeding the animals and picking them up and cuddling them, an act the animals tolerate pacifically. The Wrights' exhibition is also well received as a marvelous demonstration of handling a savage beast.
If devils aren't objects of general affection like the koala or the kangaroo, Tasmanians are still quite proud of them, partly because of the worldwide fame of the cartoon character. The feeling is that this is at least one thing the island is known for elsewhere. One result is that the devil is the best-publicized animal in Tasmania. Its head is incorporated in the insignia of the state park and wildlife service. T-shirts bearing a caricature of a snarling devil (and the legend I AM A TASSIE DEVIL), devil drinking glasses, devil postcards and place mats, and even a Tasmanian devil board game—a version of Monopoly—are sold in gift shops.
Despite this exposure, many Tasmanians have never seen a living devil, except in the roadside zoos, and generally know as much about them as do people in Trenton, N.J. Most Tasmanians share an opinion held widely in the rest of the world—that their native scavenger is rare and perhaps on the verge of extinction. This is emphatically not the case. The Tasmanian wildlife service estimates that there may be a million devils on the island, and, if anything, the population is growing too rapidly.
Tasmanians are as outdoorsy as other people and at least as observant. The reason they seldom see the devil is that the species is extremely secretive. It is thoroughly nocturnal, lying up in hollow trees or well-hidden dens during the day, and its coal-black coat, on which the white markings simulate shadow patterns, makes it all but invisible in the nighttime bush. Despite its ferocious appearance, it's a very shy animal, so shy that the aboriginal Tasmanians called it the Cowardly One. Its inclination is to hide when alarmed. Lumberjacks, trappers, hunters and game wardens say that while they hear and smell the animal—along with all their other revolting qualities, devils stink because of glandular secretions and their line of work—they seldom see one.
The first person Sam and I met who had had much to do with feral devils was the owner of a sheep station in the Tasmanian midlands. His name was Digby, and eight generations of his family have lived and worked on the ranch. At present Digby has 16,000 sheep and a good many devils, so many that last year the wildlife service permitted him to trap and destroy 50 of these normally protected animals. Even so, Digby and his sons say they may go a year or more between sightings of a free-roaming devil, and then it's usually a matter of catching one of the animals briefly in the headlight beams while driving at night through their pastures.
Digby doesn't despise the devil with the passion that American sheepmen feel toward coyotes. "They're more of a nuisance," he says. "They'll take occasional domestic fowl from their roosts. A neighbor lost a litter of good shepherd puppies—the bitch left them for an hour or so, and the devils got them. But while some believe otherwise, I've never seen evidence of them killing a fit ewe or lamb. They'll take a weakened or dead animal and make very short work of it. By morning there'll be nothing left but the fleece and the plastic ear tags. We have a notion that they may well be of minor benefit, because they dispose of diseased stock so thoroughly and quickly. We trap to keep the numbers down a bit, on the chance that if they did become too numerous and hungry, they might turn to lambs. But we have no desire to eliminate them. They are part of this country. I wouldn't like to think there were none about."
Digby and his family live in a 150-year-old house built of native sandstone that has turned tawny with age. It's surrounded by a garden nearly as old, in which there are flocks of brilliant wild parrots and, unfortunately, a small grove of apple trees, which caught Sam's attention. After what I felt was an interminable discussion about diseases of apples, Digby returned to the main subject and made a telling comment.
"The devils are rather unpleasant-acting little beasts but perfectly harmless," he said. "I couldn't imagine them, for example, rushing out and savaging a man's leg. But there is another matter I sometimes think of. If I were to suffer an accident in the bush, go down and not be able to move, I'd be absolutely terrified of being found and taken by the devils."
Many of those who took an interest in our quest suggested that we talk to Robert Green, curator of zoology at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston, the second-largest city on the island, and author of an excellent guide to the mammals of Tasmania and of several monographs on the devil. Green showed no surprise at our purpose and, in fact, seemed to find it curious that he had met so few of our kind. "Marvelous, fascinating creatures," he said. "It's a pity we know so little about them."
Green, who's in his 50's, said that during his entire career he had observed wild, free-ranging devils on only five occasions. However, he has handled more of them than perhaps any other person, having set up zoological shop at sheep stations where devils were being trapped. There he examined and performed autopsies on their carcasses. He's particularly instructive about what the devil is physiologically and how it got that way.
Like many endemic Australian species, the devil is a marsupial, one of the order of pouched, nonplacental mammals. Except for the New World possums and a few of their minor associates, marsupials are now found almost exclusively in Australia and on adjacent islands. In ancient times they were plentiful in both Americas, Asia and Europe. Marsupials seem to have originated on one of those continents, not Australia. Zoological conjecture is that they migrated Down Under some 70 million years ago, very likely from South America, across archipelagos that have since disappeared. They found the land empty of other mammals—probably for geological reasons, few species preceded or followed the marsupials to Australia—and in undisturbed isolation they put on an impressive display of radiation and parallel evolution. That is, they spread out ecologically, evolving so as to fill a number of functional niches that elsewhere are occupied by many orders of mammals. There are marsupials that look somewhat like deer and antelope (the kangaroos and wallabies), squirrels (the sugar gliders), woodchucks (the wombats), bears (the koalas), anteaters (the numbats), lemurs (the cuscuses) and many small creatures that would pass for mice, rats and shrews. In prehistoric times there were cowlike marsupials and a marsupial lion.
One family of marsupials, the Dasyuridae, became carnivorous. It includes tiger cats and quolls, which are ferret-feline types, and the devil, which is thought to be an early, primitive model. The devil's maternal apparatus is, for example, rudimentary. Like all marsupials, devils give birth to what in placental creatures would be undeveloped embryos. Newborn devils are about the size of honeybees, but they have the capacity to crawl forward through the fur of their mother, to find and affix themselves to teats and to remain there for several months, growing as a placental infant would in the womb.
After their long postnatal journey, little devils aren't rewarded with deep, secure pouches such as kangaroos and other marsupials provide for their young. The devil's pouch is little more than a circular fold of skin with a central opening, almost like a shelf. As the young—usually four to a litter—grow, they hang out over this shelf and, as the mother lurches about the woods, are dragged below, bumping along the ground. Occasionally, small devils that have fallen or been jolted out of the pouch are found, but most displaced infants are probably eaten by other devils, perhaps even by their mother. If ever there was a creature whose lousy personality can be excused on the grounds of a traumatic childhood, it's the devil.
Devils were once distributed throughout the Australian mainland, and from there they migrated to Tasmania over a land bridge that periodically connected the two islands, the last time some 10,000 years ago. Subsequently, the species disappeared from the big island, possibly because it couldn't compete with the dingo, a true dog that became feral after being brought to Australia by aboriginal man. However, the devil thrived on Tasmania, which the dingo never reached, and was there in the early 1800s to startle the first white settlers. By the 1920s devils had become scarce, although human harassment wasn't considered a major factor in their decline. Green and other zoologists believe a distemper-type disease decimated the population. The species recovered from the epidemic and is now more numerous than ever before.
Even so, Green wasn't optimistic about being able to turn up a wild devil on short notice. Citing his own experience, he reckoned that we were about as likely or unlikely to find a devil in one place as in another. This gave us an excuse to go wherever we chose on the island. Because we heard that Tasmania harbored a lot of other interesting things, we headed for the wilderness of the western highlands.
Though only about the size of West Virginia, Tasmania is a marvelously diverse place, topographically, meteorologically and biologically. It is ringed with hard, white, usually empty sand beaches and spectacular rocky headlands. The eastern half of the island is a pleasant place of rolling pastures, wood lots and pretty country villages. To the west is a complex of jagged mountains that rise 5,000 to 6,000 feet. These ranges are buffeted by strong, persistent winds, called the Roaring Forties because of the latitude, which boil up in Antarctic regions and sweep in from the Indian Ocean. Because of this mountain windbreak, the eastern, leeward half of Tasmania has a mild Mediterranean climate, sunny, frost-less and dry. The higher elevations that intercept the Roaring Forties are very wet—with 100 inches of precipitation annually in some places—and frequently cold. Blizzards can occur even during the summer months of December, January and February.
The highlands are set with muskeglike bogs, cold lakes, deep canyons, sizable caverns, swift rivers and one of the most extensive temperate rain forests on the planet. There are dense stands of eucalyptus, tree ferns, myrtle trees, leatherwood, dogwood and sassafras, the latter two species being related only in name to the North American ones.
Impressive as the upper stories of these forests are, the ground cover is of more concern—and agony—to anyone trying to cross the highlands. It's composed of dense, resilient masses of windfalls, mosses, ferns, bushes and vines. The popular names of some of these growths are very suggestive: tanglefoot, needle bush, grass tree, pencil pine, horizontal scrub.
On the first day out, having gained a high, bare, alpine ridge, we spotted a small tarn in the direction we were headed. It appeared to have a nice sandy beach and an open grove of pines, and it promised to be a good campsite. A narrow trail reached this pond by a circuitous two-mile route, but from where we were it was only half a mile or so directly down to the tarn, and there seemed no reason not to cut cross-country. Only some heatherish-looking moorland and a few bushy ravines intervened.
Because of our peculiar interests and our penchant for poor planning, Sam and I have had considerable acquaintance with bad scrub—the laurel slicks of the southern Appalachians, the high manzanita and chaparral of the Mexican border, the Arctic barrens, the cockpit country of Jamaica—but we were unprepared for what grew in those Tasmanian ravines. Generally, it was of the consistency of chicken wire and barbed wire uncoiled and piled up to a height of four or five feet. At first we tried forcing our way through, but this left Sam, leading the way, gasping and exhausted, which would have been acceptable as far as I was concerned except that after he had broken through a few feet of brush, it snapped back and was as solid as before. We tried walking on top of it, which worked for a few steps, but then something would give way and we would plunge down into vegetative crevices and caves. The other option was to stay below and crawl forward in tunnels made by wallabies and wombats, creatures much smaller than we were.
It took almost three hours to negotiate the half-mile shortcut. When we reached the tarn, we were bloody, bowed and convinced that we didn't want to do any more of that sort of thing. Thereafter, we remained on the trails, grateful for the aborigines, lumberjacks, bushwalkers or whoever it was who had cut them.
There are no full-blooded aborigines left in Tasmania, the result of an evil matter that haunts this pleasant island. When the first white settlers arrived, some 5,000 aborigines were living there. They were a small, dark, primitive, innocent, pacific people, but the whites immediately began to hunt them, partly because they were a nuisance and partly, quite literally, for sport. Michael Howe, a 19th-century bushranger-Robin Hood figure, said he liked "killing blackfellows better than smoking my pipe."
The last of the aborigines in Tasmania was a woman named Truganini, the daughter of a chief. At about 16 she was a great beauty and was betrothed to a young man named Paraweena. The couple and another native were traveling by canoe with two lumberjacks, Watkin Lowe and Paddy Newell, when Paraweena and the other man were overpowered by the lumberjacks. The two native men were thrown overboard, their hands were chopped off when they tried to climb back on board, and they were left to drown. Truganini was taken, often, by Lowe and Newell and subsequently passed among other whites. But she survived. As an old woman, and the sole remaining member of her race in Tasmania, she was kept as a curiosity in Hobart, where she died on May 8, 1876. As she was dying, she begged of a physician, "Don't let them cut me up. Bury me behind the mountains." However, her skeleton, the bones strung together, rests today in a coffinlike box in the basement of a Hobart museum.
Tasmania was the only place where European settlers accomplished the Final Solution to their problem with native populations, although it was attempted in Africa, Asia and especially the Americas. Truganini isn't an endemic Tasmanian ghost. She haunts the bushes of the Western world.
Tracts of the Tasmanian bush have never been explored on foot, and inevitably there are many stories about unknown things—animal, vegetable and mineral—that may be hidden in there. The most persistent speculation concerns the thylacine, whose scientific name (Thylacinus cynocephalus) has become the common one for the animal sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger or wolf. Whether it still exists is a matter of conjecture, both popular and zoological, somewhat like that having to do with the Sasquatch in Oregon. The difference is that whatever their current status, thylacines indisputably once did exist and were fairly common in Tasmania—but only there.
The thylacine was (to arbitrarily use the more conservative tense) another marsupial carnivore, about the size of a small German shepherd and of generally doglike appearance. It had a stiff tail, like that of the devil, and a broadly striped back suggestive of the tiger. Thylacines were true predators. Their habit was to pick up the trail of a kangaroo or wallaby and stay on it until they exhausted the speedier animal. After the white settlers arrived, thylacines became at least occasional sheep killers, and several thousand of them were rubbed out by bounty hunters. By the 1920s they had become extremely rare, and shortly thereafter they were invisible, if not extinct. The last incontestable living thylacine died in the Hobart Zoo in the mid-1930s.
Since then, organized searches have been mounted, but nobody has found a living thylacine or produced a carcass, partial remains or a photograph of one. Nevertheless, in almost every country pub in western Tasmania there's a bloke who, if he hasn't personally met a thylacine, has a mate who has found thylacine tracks or shot one of the critters and chopped it up for lobster bait. At the other end of the same bar there is invariably a bloke who laughs at this as pure grog talk and will say that if there were thylacines, he would have found them and made his fortune by guiding parties of bloody environmentalists to them.
Among the wild stories there are enough plausible ones to have convinced many wildlife authorities that the question of the thylacines' existence is still open. Green is optimistic that they've survived. He believes that hunting eliminated them from open areas and drove the remaining thylacines back into the inaccessible bush, where they were further reduced by a disease similar to that which ravaged the devils. He says he has recently been receiving what he believes to be valid reports of thylacine signs and thinks the animal may be making a recovery, but a slower one than that of the devil, because the thylacines were less numerous to begin with and more widely dispersed by human harassment.
Green also points out that devils often associated with thylacines, serving as jackals to their tigers. If there are still thylacines, they are probably still being followed by devils. This may account for the lack of thylacine remains, the scavengers presumably being as able to munch up a defunct thylacine as anything else. We had formed a good opinion of Green's opinions—as well as one of our own about the Tasmanian bush, to the effect that it could hide anything up to the size of a rhinoceros. We saw no harm in looking about alertly for thylacines. None showed up, but the possibility that they might entertained us as it does most Tasmanian bushwalkers.
Aside from three native snakes, all venomous, a variety of sluggish but mildly annoying bush flies, the devil and perhaps the thylacine, Tasmania may have the best-looking and best-behaving wildlife in the world. There can be few better ways to commence a day than to awaken at dawn and find oneself being politely scrutinized by a wallaby with a joey peering brightly out of her pouch.
Nearly all the Tasmanian beasts are nocturnal or crepuscular, which accounts for their general look of wide-eyed innocence, and it's all but impossible to trail them to the lairs in the deep bush where they sleep during the day. Also, it's pointless. All that's necessary is to set up camp early, get the evening's cooking out of the way, find a smooth peppermint tree for a backrest and wait for the nice beasts to drop by. They start doing so around dusk in a very unshy way.
Pademelons look like miniature kangaroos but may be wind-up toys from FAO Schwarz. Wombats are about the size and shape of furry medicine balls, with facial expressions like those of elderly academics. Ringtails are velvety-furred, lemur-faced, raccoon-sized possums that hang by their tails from trees and make chirpy, cooing sounds. Bandicoots are rabbity creatures with very long pointed, bewhiskered, inquisitive faces. When pursued, they hop about as if on pogo sticks, and they probably retire to C.S. Lewis's Narnia during the day.
The quoll may be the prettiest, most winsome animal in creation. It's cat-sized, with a bright foxy face and a fluffy tail. Its coat is a golden tawny color sprinkled with large white polka dots. Usually in pairs, quolls whisk about a camp and frequently sit up like prairie dogs to make chittering inquiries about the leftover noodle situation. As a matter of taxonomical fact, quolls are marsupial carnivores like the devil. When not charming tourists, they are holy terrors to small mammals and birds, and have some feeding and maternal habits that might make even a devil blush. However, such is the appeal of a nice face and figure that quolls are universally thought to be admirable animals.
In comparison with the wildlife that exists in most other places, Tasmanian beasts are so bizarre and appealing that sitting by a campfire watching them hop, scoot, amble and swing in and out of the dark bush gives one an odd sense of being in a parade of characters out of Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss. The classic example of this is the platypus, the believe-it-or-not creature—has body of an otter, bill of a duck, feet of a beaver and venom of a rattlesnake, lays eggs like a bird but suckles its young—that has become the universal grade school metaphor for the mysterious ways of nature.
We arrived in Tasmania convinced that platypuses must be exceedingly rare and would be kept in guarded sanctuaries available only to the better class of Nobel laureates. We were soon informed that the animals are common and, though protected, go about their business in an unsupervised way in many of the island's lakes and rivers.
One evening we were sitting on a pile of driftwood above a small lake listening to the currowongs—attractive Tasmanian crows that have a nice evening song—and waiting for the bandicoots to arrive when, without ceremony or fanfare, first one platypus and then another surfaced in the water below us. They floated unconcernedly under our dangling feet, looking just as weird as advertised. When they departed, Sam said in a very flat, matter-of-fact way, "Do you know what just happened? Two guys from Adams County, Pennsylvania, sat under a gum tree by a billabong, and two platypuses paddled past. I absolutely do not believe it."
It would seem that the sighting of two platypuses, to say nothing about seeing kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons, wombats, possums, bandicoots, quolls and currowongs, would be sufficient, but the wants of animalholics are insatiable, and there remained the matter of the devil. Almost daily while in the bush, we found scats and tracks of our quarry. Given their numbers and the cover available to them, we may well have walked close by dozens of snoozing devils. However, our closest known encounter with any of them came late one night when at least two devils commenced screaming in a dense thicket of Antarctic beech bushes, squabbling, for all we knew, over a thylacine kill. In the devil's call there are elements of a bobcat's screech, a large dog being strangled and the cry of a man who has just smashed his thumb with a hammer. The blending is unique, and when the sound wells up out of the midnight bush, it is much more impressive than when prodded out of a young captive animal. The quality is such as to make it understandable why, when they heard it in a new, strange land at the far end of the earth, the first white settlers thought something much spookier and more evil than a medium-sized scavenger was lurking in Tasmania.
On our way out of the mountains we stopped by a small lodge located in an isolated clearing on the Pencil Pine River, six or seven miles from the ranger station at Cradle Mountain National Park. We had been told that the operators of this place put out their kitchen and table scraps in a clearing and that in the evening a good many animals, including an occasional devil, fed there. This proved to be the case. We began poking around in the underbrush between the lodge and the Pencil Pine River. At dusk a kitchen helper dumped several large cans of scraps in the usual clearing, and soon there were 50 or so wallabies, pademelons, possums, quolls and tiger cats (a slightly larger, stouter and less attractive version of the quoll) feeding on them. A half-dozen lodge guests came out to watch these creatures, and there was considerable loud talk to the effect that if everybody found a safe place and was very quiet, a devil might show up and do vicious things to wallabies. However, the wait proved long and boring, and after half an hour or so, the crowd dispersed. Sam and I were left sitting on eucalyptus stumps with flashlights, watching the moonlit garbage pile. About 11 p.m. the feeding animals became noticeably uneasy and drew back, and a devil, looking at first like a heavy, blobby shadow, arrived.
Overtly, the animal wasn't much different from those we had seen in the roadside zoos. However, a feral creature, even if it's only munching away on the remains of fricasseed rabbit, is always more satisfying to observe than one whose activities are restricted by captivity. The difference is somewhat the same as the difference between watching Lou Gehrig play first base and watching Gary Cooper play Lou Gehrig playing first base.
Standing knee-deep in the trash, the devil buried its nose in it and steadily crunched away, occasionally clacking its teeth and making grunting, choking sounds. After it had settled in, the other animals moved back, without showing much concern for the living garbage disposal in their midst. There followed an interesting behavioral vignette. Why it occurred is inexplicable. Despite all man's science and curiosity, the inner life of other bloods is more mysterious to us than the workings of the solar system; professional jargon tends to obscure facts, and we therefore describe things analogously, in anthropomorphic terms. With this qualification, what appeared to occur at the garbage pile was as follows:
A stout possum moved alongside the devil and turned to stare at it directly and deliberately. It was as if a decent citizen had entered a rough bar purposely to outface a notorious bully. The devil raised its big head until the noses of the two animals were almost touching and stared back in a puzzled way, as if trying to remember or figure out a formula for dealing with impudent possums. After holding its ground for a minute or so, the possum was satisfied, or perhaps grew bored with the confrontation, and moved off several feet and recommenced feeding. The devil held the same position and continued to stare at the spot where the possum had stood. Then, suddenly, it seemed to come up with the answer to its problem, something like: "Ah, yes, what I am is a ferocious Tassie devil. I act savagely."
Thereupon the devil emitted a fairly savage squall, chomped its teeth and wheeled in a staggering pivot toward the possum, which, long before this awkward movement was completed, leaped up onto a post. The other browsers did the same, swarming into trees and bushes, whence they studied the devil, which stood shaking its head dumbly. The incident suggested that the devil had some predatory inclinations, of which the possums, wallabies and quolls were aware. But they also seemed to recognize that the physical and intellectual limitations of the beast made it not much more dangerous than a falling tree.
The devil began feeding again but after about 15 minutes stopped and abruptly lurched back into the bush, from which, almost immediately, there issued thrashing and caterwauling sounds. When they subsided, a second, larger devil emerged. Perhaps because it had become habituated to humans by eating their garbage, or because it didn't recognize or care what we were, or for reasons we wouldn't recognize as reasons, it walked directly to Sam and me, sniffed our boots slowly and then stared dully at our upper parts.
This animal may have routed the smaller one we had seen, but there had obviously been other battles in which it had been a loser, or only a Pyrrhic victor. One of its flanks was scored with a deep, partly healed, suppurating wound. The devil had lost an eye and was left with a socket of knotted, weeping scar tissue, which twisted its face hideously. It wheezed. Its jaws hung open. Its muzzle was covered with mucus, and its odor was rank. Nevertheless, this was an extremely satisfying animal, in part because it was a trophy representing the successful conclusion to a considerable quest. The best thing about it was that it was completely and convincingly another blood, known for a brief moment more intimately than we thought we would ever in our lives know one of its kind.