SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
October 05, 1981
It lives in only one place in the world, the quiet, remote outpost that is Australian's island state of Tasmania. Perhaps that's just us well, because the elusive Tasmanian devil is an Ugly, smelly and ferocious critter
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October 05, 1981

Nasty Little Devil

It lives in only one place in the world, the quiet, remote outpost that is Australian's island state of Tasmania. Perhaps that's just us well, because the elusive Tasmanian devil is an Ugly, smelly and ferocious critter

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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 before he and his wife had bought property on the coast, 60 miles south of Hobart. On part of it 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 well 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. Esthetic 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 an ill-formed bear cub or wolverine. 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!—of the sort that might proliferate in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

For the devil's size—a large one is three feet long and weighs between 20 and 25 pounds—its head is enormous and would seem to fit better on a wolf or an alligator. For reasons to be considered shortly, the devil has evolved 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 dentation. 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 wag-gable than a nose or an ear.

As with 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 had been 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 42 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 not attack animals, devils will take living animals 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 on the northern part of the island brought his animals into a shearing shed with a slatted floor, underneath which, unbeknown 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 Tazzie—by locals and other 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's exhibition is also well received as a marvelous demonstration of handling a savage beast.

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