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.