Saturday, 27 March 2010

Tasmania V: Beaumaris Zoo

IN Hobart, in the Queens Domain, there is a steep, overgrown hill that overlooks the River Derwent. Next to the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens and Government House, it didn't look particularly significant, but it was to be the most important thing that we would see all day.

As we walked through the gates we were touched with sadness. It was neglected, forgotten. A tourist bus approached, but it didn't stop. In fact, it barely slowed down on passing.

This field, used in the past 70 years first as a naval depot and now by the council, has a very important place in history. As the commemorative gates proclaim, it used to house a private business known as Beaumaris Zoo, or Hobart Zoo, and it was here that the world last saw something very special. In 1936, in a small, concrete enclosure at the bottom of the hill, the last ever thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died.

The thylacine was a marsupial carnivore, the largest in modern times, like a dog with stripes on its back. By the time of European settlement of Australia it had become restricted to the island of Tasmania, having previously been found all across the Australian mainland. It quickly ran into trouble: perceived as a pest to farming (a culture that had arrived along with the Europeans), a bounty was placed on the head of every thylacine. Even the government offered £1 per scalp in an age when £2 was a reasonable weekly wage. Numbers dwindled disturbingly rapidly.

The last known wild thylacine in Tasmania was shot by farmer Wilf Batty in 1930, a legacy I am sure his family would rather forget.

But was the thylacine really a pest?

Some sources say that the animal was in fact shy and unlikely to have been the savage hunter it is portrayed as. One photo, allegedly showing a thylacine stealing a chicken, was widely distributed and probably cemented the creature's image as a menace to agriculture. You may well have seen this picture, as it has become quite famous. But it is (and was) the only photograph in existence of a thylacine with prey. Subsequent analysis has suggested that the picture is of a mounted specimen in an enclosure, the chicken placed in its mouth:

"The most significant problem is that this photograph fabricates the idea that the thylacine was a threat to poultry and, by extension, sustains the notion that it was a threat to sheep and human endeavour in general. In his book, The Last Tasmanian Tiger, [Robert] Paddle interrogates claims of the thylacine’s predation on poultry, finds very few substantiated reports and points out that it has been referred to in publications so many times that it has been accepted in scientific literature and its significance magnified in a similar way to sheep predation. Paddle expresses no reservations about the power of representations and comments on the way the photograph has been cropped to disguise the caged environment and suggest that the thylacine is actually raiding a henhouse. The first appearance of the photo a little more than a decade after the end of the devastating government bounty on the thylacine, when few members the species survived, did nothing to support the idea that its protection and preservation was crucial."

Carol Freeman. "Is This Picture Worth a Thousand Words? An Analysis of Harry Burrell's Photograph of a Thylacine with a Chicken." Australian Zoologist 33.1 (2005): 1-16.

Above: Cropped image
Below: Original

The thylacine received full legal protection from the Tasmanian government - which had previously supported the cull of the species - on 14 July 1936. Two months later, on 7 September 1936, the very last one in history died in Beaumaris Zoo. After such a callous extermination, the species was not even allowed a dignified exit: Benjamin, as history has decided he was called*, died of neglect, left out of his enclosure overnight and exposed to the extreme cold brought in by the Southern Ocean. The thylacine died, to use the classic phrase, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Little remains of the Beaumaris Zoo site, but it is possible to picture how bleak it would have been by modern standards. The gates have been decorated with steel animals, looking forlornly through solid bars, their enclosures barely big enough for them to stand. The gates were open, so we wandered in.

In front of the gates is the largest remaining structure, a concrete pit that once housed two polar bears. Inside is a tiny platform on which the bears would stand and, presumably, wonder where it all went horribly wrong. I'm not opposed to zoos, but you have to wonder how justified the original zoos were when you see things like this. There was no room for them to walk. By modern standards it was mortifying. Rachel climbed in to the holding pen to one side but there wasn't much room for her, let alone a fully grown bear. For a creature that towers over us they had provided a concrete cell in which an adult human can barely stand.


According to the map on the gates, Mike the Leopard used to live in front of the polar bears. Giving him a name seemed to give him a personality, and I imagined a happy leopard, perhaps a showman. I like to think he would play practical jokes on the public, maybe perform a few card tricks or shape comical balloons. But if the scale of the map is to be believed this luxurious cat, suited to roam and hunt over vast areas, used to live in a cage no bigger than a car. Far from the entertainer, he was probably a very angry and bitter creature, which is simply heartbreaking.

We climbed the hill, the polar bears now below us. Beyond them lay the remains of the duck pond, but in all other directions, wild shrub. The zoo is now a wasteland, contaminated from years of naval fuel storage. Such abandonment was curiously appropriate as it left the site to silence, but it made it eerie also. Trees stood in the remains of the lion enclosure, turf concealing walls on which eagles once perched. The view over the river was appealing, but it would have been all the better if the animals had still been there. Now, instead, there was just overgrown bush, the two of us and, in front of the small corner that once somehow housed elephants, a man from the council, burning rubbish. We decided to leave, partly because it was all very upsetting, but mostly because we were probably trespassing.

Beaumaris Zoo closed in 1937. Whether this is because of the loss of the thylacine is debatable. In its time, the thylacine was hardly a star attraction. It was either perceived as a menace or not worthy of protection - it was seen as "stupid, dull and uninteresting; a curiosity from a far away land".

But if it were alive today, it would be the star attraction. Reverence for this mysterious creature has been amplified since its extinction, which occurred just long enough ago to escape memory. We like to imagine what it could have been like, how things could have worked out differently. I'd prefer not to imagine, however. I'd prefer that it were still here. Not stuffed in a museum or pickled in a jar, but living, breathing and definitely not pilfering poultry.

Which is why, for me, further attention needs to be drawn to the fauna of Tasmania. Although this time not caused by humans, there is another marsupial endemic to that beautiful island that is on the brink of extinction. The Tasmanian Devil  - a real creature, I promise - desperately needs our help, for an unstoppable cancerous plague is making its way through the population. We can't let it happen again, not on our watch.

This post continues at Longhand & Scribblings

*Name and gender are unrecorded. The name Benjamin was suggested by Frank Darby, a former keeper, and this name has been adopted. However, the daughter of the zoo's curator has denied both that the name Benjamin was ever used and also that Frank Darby was ever employed by the zoo. Benjamin's real identity remains unknown.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Tasmania IV: Curringa Farm

THIS year, on my birthday, I watched Mamma Mia!

I make no apology.

After our ridiculous and overlong journey to Curringa Farm, and the unprecedented hospitality bestowed on us by owners Tim and Jane, it was a pleasure to have a rest day. Philippa wasn't happy, however, her bodywork having turned from a healthy scarlet to a muddy grey on our journey along the least-used road in Tasmania, a thick layer of gravel cemented in every corner of her chassis. The sight of her might have been comical that morning had we not been so terrified of being found out by our rental company. We had very obviously driven off-road, something we were absolutely not to do. In the absence of a hose, we found a mop and bucket and mopped her down, dabbing her gently so as to not bruise her pride. She had the day to bask in the sun, and she seemed to have forgiven us by the next day.

Our accommodation, a self-catered cottage overlooking a private lake, was one of three on site, cut off from the rest of the farm. It was a quiet and secluded retreat. We were surrounded by grassland, rolling hills and trees stripped of bark by possums. We had more space than we knew what to do with: a large, fully-kitted kitchen and living room complex with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, electric blankets and even a hot tub. Miles from major settlement and beyond mobile phone reception, we even had a large screen HD television with digital reception. But I wasn't interested in the television. I wanted to explore.

We walked down to the lake, past a small makeshift enclosure at the bottom of the hill in which Tim and Jane were rehabilitating a wombat for a wildlife charity. He seemed quite content for us to watch him, so long as we stayed downwind.

In the afternoon I climbed a hill. It wasn't just any hill, but one that towered over a landscape already teeming with contour lines. The views from the top , I assumed, would be spectacular. So, leaving Rachel to catch up on some telly, during which time she unexpectedly prepared a feast, I began my adventure. Through the fields I walked, unnerving the sheep as I went, until I found myself at the base of the hill. It turned out to be a lot steeper than I had reckoned on, but I perservered, puffing and panting to the end, intent on reaching its rarely-climbed peak, a view on the world that would belong only to me. Even here, on a farm, it still felt like wilderness. For that very moment, it was all mine.

Well, mine and that of the herd of cows that were waiting for me at the top.

I stared out over my kingdom, over the river Derwent as it kinks around the base of the hill and splits to form the lake on which our cottage stood, over the green pasture that rolls for miles, remembering the mountains and lakes to the north, the forests to the west and the city to the east. It was a dragon and a hobbit short of Middle Earth, I remember thinking. The air was thin up there.

It took all afternoon to recover from my exertions, so we relaxed on the sofas, making the most of the cottage's DVD collection. On arrival we had been assured by Jane, who had checked with her son, that the DVD selection was pretty good. But her son was only little, so this pretty good selection amounted to two musicals, a collection of Looney Tunes cartoons, About a Boy (in Japanese) and Stuart Little.


And I don't care admitting it. I rather enjoyed Chicago and Mamma Mia!

In the evening, summoned by a possum on our balcony, we went for a walk in the dark on a wildlife quest. Every so often, if we stayed very still and quiet, we would catch a glimpse of a wild possum staring at us in mild curiosity, pausing to say hello before hastily vanishing to safety. We could occasionally hear kookaburras, and where the sheep had been in the daytime a group of creatures departed from us with that most Australian of gaits - a bounce. They were too far away to identify, but we hoped, based on what we had been told, that they were potoroos, although they may have been wallabies. It was down by the lake, the water still and the night dark and quiet, that we made our most surprising discovery. Something - we had no idea what - pierced the silence with a bloodcurdling shriek. It truly sent shivers down our spines. It sounded like death itself calling for an ambush. What on earth could it have been? What on Middle Earth could it have been? Was it a Nazg├╗l, one of Sauron's most terrible servants coming to get us? We suddenly felt very isolated and very, very alone.

Turns out, we learned later, that it was only a parrot, but it was enough to make us head home immediately and bolt the door!

In a final act for my birthday, I had a bath in the hot tub. The water was brown - it came directly from the water table that is rich in tannins from all the gum trees - and it flowed slowly. The bath had pumps, jets and fancy buttons, and, being me (and getting impatient), I couldn't resist pressing them all. But I did so before the water level had passed a critical volume. Six streams of dirty water fired at varying angles - all of them up - at the walls. Three streams came from one end, three from the other, a veritable projection of water everywhere but the bath. It was at this moment that Rachel came in to say hello. In seconds, though it felt much longer, the room flooded. Frustratingly, to turn the jets off you had first to cycle through all of the other power levels, each of them progressively stronger. With the room's ambient lighting it was quite some scene.

But I don't care, because I was having fun.