The Last Word from Australia: A Devil of a Time in Tasmania

Until this past week, my image of the Tasmanian devil, an endangered marsupial that lives on the Australian island state of Tasmania, was based exclusively on this Looney Tunes cartoon character. The poor Tasmanian devil, because of its obscure location and a perception of its unpleasant disposition, does not get much attention. (Interestingly, the New Jersey Devils hockey team does not get much attention for essentially the same reasons.)

On Tasmania, visual depictions of the animal are odd, to say the least. Because devils are unique to the island (they used to be all over Australia, but are now just on Tasmania), local organizations like Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service (pictured above) use them in logos, brochures, and other media. Rather than being portrayed as even vaguely likable, though, the devils are almost always shown as vicious little monsters with their mouths open and teeth bared.

Stuffed animals (or the souvenir slippers pictured above) found in gift shops have cuddly open mouths and bared teeth. Even this wooden sculpture atop a donations box at the Tasmania Zoo in the town of Launceston shows the animal in a perpetual state of ferocity. This sculpture is particularly strange to me because the animal is sitting, but still has its mouth open like it’s tearing apart dinner.

It seems to me that if you’re asking for donations to help protect an animal, you might want to show its softer side—or at least show it not being openly hostile—so that people might actually want to protect it. (For the record, we did not make a donation here, but we did later on.)

I still had never seen a live devil when I saw this and was starting to think they walked around with their mouths just hanging open all the time.

On our third day in Tasmania, we went to the zoo to see the devils in person. We approached this enclosure with trepidation, fearing for our lives when we saw this sign posted on a wall less than three feet high. But the moment we first saw the devils was a bit anti-climactic. They didn’t spin wildly like the Looney Tunes character, nor were they devouring some other animal’s carcass. They were roughly the size of house cats, and they all had their mouths closed.

They were actually a little bit adorable in an ugly sort of way, like Hugh Jackman or the original Volkswagen Beetle.

After five or ten minutes, we finally saw a devil open his mouth and bare his teeth. We snapped away with our cameras, though in fairness, I am compelled to reveal that this guy was just yawning. To this point, the experience was going exactly as I expected. It was a thrill to see a unique animal on its home turf, but the build-up related to the ferocity of the devil was impossible to live up to—until we learned a thing or two about them.

At 10:30 that morning, we witnessed a short interpretive presentation and a devil feeding at the zoo. A burly bloke carrying a bucket of what the devils clearly knew was their morning tea dodged and weaved as these adorable little Hugh Jackmans turned into the snarling monsters we saw portrayed everywhere. Suddenly we understood. While giving the devils a rack of kangaroo ribs that they devoured—bones and all—in short order, the interpreter explained that these scavengers have a bite 12 times stronger than that of a pit bull—only slightly less than that of a crocodile. One of these little guys could pull him from one side of the enclosure to the other with no problem.

The devils are facing a number of challenges and were listed as endangered in 2008. Sadly, the devils have been besieged by a virus that has wiped out 80 percent of the population and could go extinct if the problem is not solved. In fact, Mr. Burly Interpreter told us, the reason there’s so much roadkill on the roads in Tasmania these days is that devils play the important role of cleaning up these messes, and there are far fewer of them to do so now.

Before we left, we got the chance to give a baby devil a pat. The young ones don’t start biting right away, so this was a chance to create a connection (literally and figuratively) between the animals and the visitors. After telling the story of the devil’s plight and showing us a softer side of the animal, we did make a donation to help protect it.

This moment reminded us that no matter how they’re portrayed in logos or brochures, Tasmanian devils just want to be loved. Until they’re two years old. At which point they will gnaw your hand off if you give them the chance.

Our great Australian adventure ended this weekend, but as our kids spend the next six months recovering from jet lag and exhaustion, they’ll have the company and comfort of their new friend “Diablo,” a stuffed devil—with its mouth open and teeth bared—that we purchased as we left the Tasmania Zoo.

Live from Australia, Part 3: Three Interpretive Experiences in Melbourne

The great Australian adventure finds me in the country’s second largest city, Melbourne, which the locals pronounce MEL-bun. We’re lucky to be staying with friends who have the time and patience to tote us around to some amazing sites. While I normally write about graphic design, three of our interpretive experiences in Melbourne have stood out, so I’m going to venture into Shea’s area of expertise and write about interpretation.

The Melbourne Zoo: Don’t Palm Us Off
One of the many great things about events like the NAI International Conference is that it affords you the opportunity to meet talented interpreters who work in amazing places around the world. One of the many great things about using vacation time immediately following the NAI International Conference is that you’re bound to go to a site where someone you just met works.

During the conference, I had the good fortune to meet Scott Killeen, visitor experiences manager for Zoos Victoria, who is based out of the Melbourne Zoo. After the conference, I had the good fortune to go to the Melbourne Zoo, where they have a sign that uses my new favorite word, Platypusary. Scott graciously took time out of his schedule to meet my family and friends and me. He introduced us to one of his recent projects, an orangutan exhibit that uses an advocacy-based interpretive message to alert visitors to the damage the palm oil industry does to the orangutan’s habitat. The zoo and its employees were covered with this “Don’t Palm Us Off” message, and visitors were asked to support a proposed bill that would cause products that use palm oil to be labeled as such. (Find out more at

The interpretive message itself focused on creating an understanding of the relationship between the products we buy at the local grocery store and the rapidly diminishing habitat of the animals immediately in front of us at that moment, and it was powerful. In fact, our friends in Melbourne are members of the zoo, and told us that they had already stopped buying products with palm oil because of an article in the zoo newsletter.

So soon after the NAI conference, it was invigorating to see interpretation at work in such a rewarding way.

The Penguin Parade
Every night at dusk, the southern shore of Phillip Island in Port Phillip Bay plays host to an amazing scene. Hundreds of fairy penguins (sometimes called little penguins) come tumbling onto land after spending the day swimming in the sea. These little guys (the smallest species of penguin) wait until dark to avoid detection by predators, then scramble in groups across the beach to the cover of the brush for the night. At Phillip Island Nature Parks, visitors can witness this event from stadium-style seating on the beach. They don’t allow photography of any kind because people don’t know how to turn off the flash on their cameras, so I’ve borrowed the image here from Wikimedia.

After enjoying this amazing event, visitors have the chance to tour through an attractive nature center (with the exception of one inexplicable and inexcusable use of Comic Sans), where you can learn all about the gruesome nature of these adorable animals’ deaths. After seeing stuffed cats and birds mauling our tiny feathered friends, we walked through the exhibit pictured here. My six-year-old son Joel, feeling protective of and connected to the penguins, saw the shark and asked, “Why does this building have to haunted?”

The exhibit included other information, but I was disappointed that visually, the emphasis seemed to be on stuff that kills fairy penguins. There was no take-home message that there was something we could do to help them, as the focus was mostly on natural predators. If I had to identify the theme of the park, it would be, “It’s a miracle that you got to see this amazing natural event at all because sharks eat these guys like popcorn shrimp at a Vegas buffet.”

Koala Conservation Centre
I didn’t fully appreciate the majesty of these beautiful beasts until I learned how much they sleep. At the Koala Conservation Centre on Phillip Island, we had the opportunity to witness koalas (as well as wallabies) in their native habitat. Noticing how droopy they all seemed, I asked an interpreter whether they were nocturnal. He told me no, they sleep 22 hours a day, and when they’re awake, they eat eucalyptus leaves, which are extremely low in nutrients, so therefore they have no energy. During their waking moments scattered throughout the day, they eat. I told him it reminded me of college.

At another site earlier on this trip, we had the opportunity to pay money to hold a koala and have our photo taken, and we jumped on it (the opportunity, not the koala). I love the photo and will enjoy showing it off, but I will have much fonder memories of moments like the one pictured above, where a sleepy koala (which I now understand is a redundancy) roused himself momentarily to look around and take in the scenery. Knowing what I know about koalas now, I think he looks like he’s trying to remember where the heck he is, what day it is, and whether it’s worth the effort to lift his paw to eat a eucalyptus leaf—all of which I find very endearing.

I’ve always liked koalas, but now because of one interaction with a knowledgable interpreter, I like them more than ever.

Live from Australia: It’s a Giant World After All

If you are reading this on the day it is posted, I am in Australia and it is the day before the annual NAI International Conference. I am in a time zone 16 hours ahead of my home in Colorado (if you’re in Colorado and it’s after 8:00 a.m., it’s tomorrow for me) and I just (legally) drove on the left side of a two-way street for the first time yesterday. I haven’t used a toilet here yet because I heard that the water goes the opposite direction than what I’m accustomed to, and I don’t want to be around toilet water that flushes up instead of down.

The morning of our departure, I awoke to the voice of my six-year-old son Joel singing “It’s a Small World,” the refrain of one of the signature rides at Disney World. It features about 400 animatronic dolls representing different countries and cultures uniting as one to get that song stuck in your head. Suddenly, Joel stopped singing and in a raised voice, exclaimed, “Are you serious? It’s not a small world, it’s a giant world. We’re going to the other side of the world and it’s going to take three airplanes and two nights, SO YOU BABIES ARE WRONG!”

I think Joel’s right. Those Small World babies are wrong. Sure, some amazing advances in technology have facilitated instantaneous communication worldwide. In preparation for the NAI International Conference, I frequently had email conversations at the end of my work day in Colorado with people just starting the next day in Australia. There was half a planet covered in nighttime between us and we were chatting about the weather and who’s going to win the Australian “footy” championship. (Not really. I know nothing about the Australian Football League beyond the fact that the mascot of the Sydney team is the Swans.)

But even as technology increases our ability to communicate and spread communicable diseases, the world remains an enormous place. I think no matter what your profession, you gain perspective by visiting new places, getting out of your comfort zone, and trying to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And there are so many ways to accomplish this.

To Joel’s point, it’s a giant world after all. Sure, the world has gotten smaller metaphorically, but it remains literally a giant place. There’s so much out there to see and do. In communication-based professions like graphic design and heritage interpretation, it may not be enough to ask, How would someone across the street, across town, across the state, or on the other side of the planet react to this project? It may require packing a bag and going somewhere new. It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you don’t know what size they wear. (Either that’s really deep or I am more jetlagged than I think.)

Granted, it’s not always feasible to jet around the planet at will, but any opportunity to break out of your comfort zone is worthwhile and will enhance your perspective. Talk to a stranger on the bus. Eat at a restaurant on the other side of town. Wear a Mets hat (actually, scratch that one). Go somewhere you’ve never been and interact with as many people as you can.

As I adjust to autumn in April, spelling center as centre, and trying not to clip the sideview mirrors off the cars parked along the streets of Queensland, Australia, I may not fully appreciate the full value of the experience while it’s happening. But it is my belief that any experience that broadens my worldview—that helps me appreciate a perspective other than my own—is one that will help me grow as a professional communicator.

And now I have that song stuck in my head.