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NASTY LITTLE DEVIL
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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Pademelons look like miniature kangaroos but may be windup 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, be-whiskered, inquisitive faces. When pursued they hop about as if on pogo sticks, and they probably retire to C.S. Lewis' 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 in regard 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—body of an otter, bill of a duck, feet of a beaver, 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.

Like a good many residents from places other than Tasmania, we arrived convinced that platypuses must be exceedingly rare and that they 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. This didn't change our original opinion, because to us the phrase "common platypus" seemed a contradiction in terms. It's not logical to expect to come across such a weird animal as readily as one might a muskrat.

Yet one evening we were sitting on a pile of driftwood above a small lake listening to the currowongs—an attractive Tasmanian crow that has 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 of 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 settlers thought something much spookier and more evil than a medium-sized scavenger was lurking in Tasmania.

On our way into the mountains we had 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 evenings a good many animals, including an occasional devil, fed there. This proved to be the case, but the day we arrived we were too early for the garbage show and, worse, too late in the day for a meal. However, after some cajoling, a makeshift "tea" was provided. It was an ordinary meal, but it was followed by a truly outstanding dessert, a concoction of pastry, apricots and whipped cream. I carried on about its goodness until its maker, a talkative and talented woman named Fleur, came out of the kitchen. Fleur said she had cooked all over Australia and had taken the position at the country lodge while waiting for a gentleman friend to make arrangements for her to start her own restaurant in Launceston. She said she had had a hard but independent life and had never lived in a slum nor let any man treat her like an old rag. Despite everything and being 64 years old, many people mistook her for 45, because she dressed and groomed herself modern. She apologized for the leftover food at tea and promised that if we were ever in the area again she could do much better.

I said that I bet she could and that as a matter of fact we were planning on returning in a week or so. Fleur said she did a nice rabbit in wine with a pumpkin casserole on the side. I said that sounded like a winner, especially if followed by some apricot delight. Fleur said, "If I do sigh so meself, me plum slice is a bit nicer."

I said plum slice it should be, and that unless we became hopelessly entangled in the horizontal scrub, we would be back to try it and look for devils. We were able to do both. The rabbits and the pumpkins justified Fleur's confidence, and though I would have bet heavily against it, the plum slice indeed topped the apricot delight. Laying in some reserve rations of the sweet, we went outside and 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.

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