Imagining the thylacine

There is rarely a clearer demonstration of the ways in which the depictions of animals are used to give them moral weighing than looking at how a creature has been portrayed before and after its extinction. Especially if the extinction was caused or largely caused by humans.

The marsupial Tasmanian tiger or thylacine is one of the stand-out examples – the last known individual died in the 1930’s. What was seen as a bizarre wolf-opossum for early 19th century naturalists quickly gained a reputation as a scourge to famers and sheep herds everywhere in colonial Tasmania. A government bounty was placed on it’s head, at a pound per animal, and the population tumbled as the pelts, bodies and heads rolled in. Those keeping them as (reportedly rather lovely) pets were prevented from doing so. By the 1920’s, there were hardly any left. In 1933, the last female known, Benjamin, died of exposure in Hobart Zoo, and her body chucked on the rubbish heap.

Benjamin 5 corrected
Benjamin, Beaumaris Zoo, David Fleay. Thanks to Stephen Fleay.

Now, the thylacine is seen as an emblem of anthropogenic extinction. Though thylacines may have died out from a combination of factors, including competition and disease, as they did in Australia much earlier on, there is no doubt that the bounty hunting helped them on their way. The premium on almost-extinct or extinct creatures is vastly greater than that when they are plentiful, for all sorts of reasons. Some people still obsessively search for thylacines, hoping a few lurk in the Tasmanian wilds. Many people would kill to see one- as the film ‘The Hunter’ explored dramatically.

What I want to briefly demonstrate here is the dramatic shift in the portrayal of the Thylacine, from it’s 19th century damning as a scavenging, wily, pestilential, sheep-worrier, to romanticised modern image of a beautiful and soulful creature wiped out of existence (as it happens, they weren’t particularly voracious merino murderers).

Early depictions of the thylacine through the 19th century show it as a diminutive, rodent like creature, or as a lurking, menacing wolf-beast. The unfamiliarity of the animal’s evolutionary heritage, film footage shows that they were very strange to our eyes, being somewhat canine, somewhat feline, and something altogether alien, made them malleable objects. They could easily be moulded in to morally base or threatening ‘native tyger or hyaena’, ripe for eradication.

As an example of the verbal counterparts to these depictions;

An 1805 letter by Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson to the Sydney Gazette, quoted here:

“It is very evident this species is destructive, and lives entirely on animal food; on dissection his stomach was filled with a quantity of kangaroo…from its interior structure it must be a brute particularly quick of digestion…The form of the animal is that of a hyaena, at the same time strongly reminding the observer of the appearance of a low wolf dog. The lips do not appear to conceal the tusks.”

They were described as ‘brutes’, killing sheep needlessly (as foxes are said to do n chance coops now), increasing in number and becoming more ferocious and savage in their attacks on sheep farms. This was a ‘relentless war of extermination’ according to Richard Lydekker’s 1894  A Handbook to the Marsupialia and Monotremata. More contemporary quotes here.

Modern depictions are very different indeed, highlighting the nobility of the creature, the poignancy of it’s dark eyes and sociality. We’ve used anatomical and genetic analyses to understand the ecology of the thylacine more fully- their brains were wired for hunting but their jaws were not strong enough to catch animals as large as sheep.

Find out more about the iconography of the thylacine here and here


dodo rose

Copyright N.Lawrence, The Manticore

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