A proposal for pet Tasmanian Devils appears to carry strong conservationist arguments, but is it right to take the ‘wild’ out of Australian wildlife? Aidan Howes weighs up the facts.
On a recent trip to Tasmania, my girlfriend and I found ourselves with a few stray hours before our flight home, and ended up at Tasmania Zoo.
While it’s no Taronga (not that the rabbit exhibit wasn’t a real thrill) it was a beautiful afternoon to look at animals, and (as seemed appropriate) we spent much of our time beside the Tasmanian Devils enclosure.
Maybe it was their cute little growling noises, or maybe their clear sense of play, but I was immediately charmed by the small marsupial.
At one point, a zoo-keeper jumped inside the pen to feed the Devils their usual carcass-based meal. I noticed that although most of the Devils shied away from her, one stuck close, affectionately gnawing the edge of her shoe. I asked about this apparent tameness, and she explained that in any given pack of young Devils, one would invariably be more comfortable around humans than the others.
She added that this trait made some conservationists open to the idea of domestication as a strategy to bolster the species’ dwindling population size.
Pet Tasmanian Devils?
Immediately on board, I soon found myself wondering what colour jumper my pet Devil Gary would wear during the winter.
However, this rigorous trail of thought admittedly left a couple of questions unanswered…
It’s well known that Tasmanian Devils are a species assailed by threats to their survival.
Early white settlers to Tasmania did a pretty thorough job of decimating the island’s Devil population, and their numbers have continued to sustain major blows from car collisions, selective culling (particularly intense during the 1990’s) and the horrific Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
The last of these threats is perhaps the most concerning, given the disease’s highly contagious nature and unavoidable mortality rate. One study I read said that the worst affected regional Devil populations faced an infection rate of up to 90%, and that only a scattering of populations in southern and western Tasmania remain unaffected.
This is where the domestication proposal fits in. The relocation of a number of healthy Devils to mainland Australia would create a quarantined sub-population, helping to ensure the species’ survival in the event that DFTD infection rates were to suddenly spike back in Tasmania.
Then, the decision to entrust them into homes around the country would help protect them from cars, and from foxes and feral cats (while young, Devils are particularly vulnerable).
The move would also address the well-debated (and pretty reasonable) question of why we encourage the keeping of introduced animals (at the expense of our environment – looking at you, cats) instead of considering native alternatives. Senator David Leyonhjelm is a big proponent on this point.
Could We Domesticate?
Good intentions may have got us this far but this is where we have to get real.
While their size, sleeping habits and diet (comprising just about anything, including dog food) all point to the Tasmanian devil making a solid pet, you can’t ignore the behavioural uncertainty that comes with any wild animal. Plus, the stakes become higher when you consider the devil’s incredibly strong jaws.
At the zoo I had noticed the height of the enclosure walls were low, such that even a child could reach over and place their fingers within biting range of the Devils. I’d asked the zoo-keep if any fingers had gone missing as a result – she laughed and said no, suggesting some degree of natural docility.
But at this stage of my research, I decided that off-handed conversations with zoo-keepers and naïve speculations probably wasn’t going to cut it. So I reached out to Professor Mike Archer, a UNSW Professor in Environmental Sciences/man who knows a ton more about this topic than I do.
In an email on Tasmanian Devil domestication, he wrote:
‘I’m a supporter. I do know of people who have kept them as pets, and they say they’re excellent…I’ve cuddled adults (had one fall asleep in my arms) and understand from some of the researchers who have been live-trapping them in the wild that they are often friendly even as wild adults, being able to be free-handled—with sensible caution.’
‘If they are raised as juveniles, my guess is they would be super-friendly and seek our attention as do dogs.’
– Mike Archer
Background reading I did supported what he was saying – like the story of Twinkle, who aside from once tearing apart a couch, was by all reports a great pet.
And the favourable traits identified in subjects chosen for the scheme would be further ingrained over time by selective breeding, or artificial selection. It’s the way we’ve started with Gray Wolves (the species from which all modern domestic dogs originated) and ended up with Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (a breed that would survive for about 8 minutes if returned to the wild).
Which leads me to my final question…
Should We Domesticate?
Do we really want to ‘Cavalier King Charles Spaniel’ a native wildlife icon?
At what point does conservation cease to be conservation, but something more like transformation? Selective breeding may impress qualities we consider favourable or convenient, like gentleness, but what if it comes at the expense of the traits that have helped them survive? And is it even right to keep wild animals in human captivity?
I was pretty conflicted, and posed these issues to Professor Archer. He replied with another generously considered email, in which he suggested:
‘It’s a phantasm about ‘wilderness’, that somehow animals will look after themselves if we just leave them alone. That has never been true. Conservation depends on people genuinely valuing wildlife and there are many compatible ways to increase that sense of value. Having the ability to have some native mammals as companions, rather than just introduced environmentally damaging alien species, is one of those ways.’
I found this perspective fascinating, and challenging to many of my own prior views on animal rights. Is it time we rethought the underlying tenets of conservation?
What I’d arrived at here was not a concluded proposal, but undoubtedly a conversation that deserves to happen.
And it’s by no means limited to the Tasmanian Devil – Professor Archer also told me about his pet quoll and couldn’t praise it highly enough.
I also discussed these ideas with Aly Ross, an old friend of mine currently undertaking her PhD in ecology. She added:
‘For most Aussies, native species are just photos in newspapers or on Facebook, but invasive species like cats and dogs are considered family.’
‘Domestication would bring threatened species into our everyday lives, encouraging conservation while also reducing the number of introduced species in our fragile ecosystem.’
– Aly Ross
I’d love to know what you think – leave your thoughts in the comments section and let’s get the conversation happening.