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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Standing knee-deep in the trash, the devil buried its nose in it and steadily crunched away, occasionally clacking its teeth and making grunting, choking sounds. After it had settled in, the other animals moved back, without showing much concern for the living garbage Disposall in their midst. There followed an interesting behavioral vignette. Why it occurred is inexplicable. Despite all man's science and curiosity, the inner life of other bloods is more mysterious to us than the workings of the solar system; professional jargon tends to obscure facts, and we therefore describe things analogously, in anthropomorphic terms. With this qualification, what appeared to occur at the garbage pile was as follows:

A stout possum moved alongside the devil and turned to stare at it directly and deliberately. It was as if a decent citizen had entered a rough bar purposely to outface a notorious bully. The devil raised its big head until the noses of the two animals were almost touching and stared back in a puzzled way, as if trying to remember or figure out a formula for dealing with impudent possums. After holding its ground for a minute or so, the possum was satisfied, or perhaps grew bored with the confrontation, and moved off several feet and recommenced feeding. The devil held the same position and continued to stare at the spot where the possum had stood. Then, rather suddenly, it seemed to come up with the answer to its problem, something to the effect of: "Ah yes, what I am is a ferocious Tassie devil. I act savagely."

Thereupon the devil emitted a fairly savage squall, chomped its teeth and wheeled in a staggering pivot toward the possum, which long before this awkward movement was completed, leaped up onto a post. The other browsers did the same, swarming into trees and bushes, whence they studied the devil, which stood shaking its head dumbly. The incident suggested that the devil had some predatory inclinations, of which the possums, wallabies and quolls were aware. But they also seemed to recognize that the physical and intellectual limitations of the beast made it not much more dangerous than a falling tree.

The devil began feeding again, but after about 15 minutes stopped and abruptly lurched back into the bush, from which, almost immediately, there issued thrashing and caterwauling sounds. When they subsided, a second, larger devil emerged. Perhaps because it had become habituated to humans by eating their garbage, or because it didn't recognize or care what we were, or for reasons we wouldn't recognize as reasons, it walked directly to Sam and me, sniffed our boots slowly and then stared dully at our upper parts.

This animal may have routed the smaller one we had seen, but there had obviously been other battles in which it had been a loser, or only a Pyrrhic victor. One flank was scored with a deep, partly healed, suppurating wound. It had lost an eye and was left with a socket of knotted weeping scar tissue, which twisted its face hideously. It wheezed. Its jaws hung open. Its muzzle was covered with mucous, and its odor was rank.

Nevertheless, this was an extremely satisfying animal, in part because it was a trophy representing the successful conclusion to a considerable quest. The best thing about it was that it was completely and convincingly another blood, known for a brief moment more intimately than we thought we would ever in our lives know one of its kind.

C.S. Lewis expressed theological observations ecologically and vice versa. He was of the opinion that we seek other bloods not out of curiosity about their what-hath-God-wrought peculiarities but because we have a desperate need to know and recognize them as our peers and are delighted and comforted by innocent association with other of God's creatures. Lewis thought that since the Fall of Man we have been tempted and seduced by clever but fallacious arguments that we have been set above the rules and rhythms of nature and charged with dominating it. To the extent that we have accepted that proposition—that man is the unnatural animal—we have been made the loneliest of animals, confused about our origins and divorced from the company of our peers. However, our persistent yearning for other bloods is evidence that we haven't completely succumbed to hubris and that we continue to resist dangerous claims about our superiority. Lewis' conception is an elegant, comprehensive statement of the web-of-life, we-are-all-in-this-together thesis currently well thought of nowadays by pop ecologists.

By and by, the battered devil, finding us either unsavory or unfathomable, turned away and satisfied its blood by scavenging garbage. Shivering in the midnight cold, we watched until it had finished and departed, feeling, as questing beasts, fulfilled in our blood.

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