Over the past several months, we’ve been asked repeatedly if we were going to see a Tasmanian Devil while in Tasmania. The mere existence of the beast is about the extent of most people’s knowledge of the island. I had serious doubts that everyone who asked us that question even knows that it is a part of Australia and not an independent country, but I didn’t feel that it was my place to give geography lessons, so I let it go.
So what is up with this animal? How and why does everyone know he even exists? In true detective fashion, I immediately drew a straight line from the real live Tasmanian Devil to the cartoons of my childhood. It was a sort of light bulb moment. Question asked and answered. Then my favorite eight year old asked me if we were going to see a Tasmanian Devil. Oh, snap! I hate when a perfectly good theory is blown up by a kid. How could an eight year old know about a cartoon character from my childhood? Taz made his debut in 1954 (as did I) and he actually had a spin-off show of his own beginning in 1991. His sitcom ran for four years. I can only assume that the reruns are still out there on the small screen. Also, he’s had cameos in other movies and programs intermittently. There must be something timeless about Taz’s appeal. Since I am not currently a consumer of cartoons, I had no idea! But it turns out that most people would not even be able to find Tasmania on a map were it not for Taz. That cartoon character has done more for Tasmanian tourism than anything coming out of a top notch Madison Avenue advertising firm. In fact, the government of Tasmania pays Warner Brothers to use the image of Taz in their advertising. They also have rights to market Taz stuffed animals. You can even pick up a stuffed Taz toy for your dog on Amazon.
Supposedly, the creator based the cartoon character on the real life animal. The Tasmanian Devil definitely has his idiosyncrasies both in physical and temperamental characteristics. The blood-curdling scream they make is probably their most distinguishing characteristic but this funny looking marsupial picked up the name and reputation of the devil because of the ferocious way it feeds and mates. But, truth be told, their aggressive nature is somewhat understandable because it starts at birth. A female devil gives birth to 20-30 young devils, each about the size of a raisin, but she only has four nipples, so competition for milk is stiff from Day One and the little devils start life fighting; most of them don’t survive. The little ones are called pups, joeys, or imps. They are fully mature by age two and rarely live more than five years. Devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials; they are about the size of a small dog. They are fairly fast runners and are quite strong; their jaws can break bones. They often stink for two reasons: 1) they excrete a strong odor from a gland to mark where they have been, and 2) trigger warning! – they often just fall asleep inside the carrion they happen to be eating. Cue the jokes about eating in bed.
Tasmanian Devils disappeared a very long time ago from mainland Australia and are considered in danger of extinction from Tasmania, but have been making a comeback in recent years. They very often wind up as road kill because they run out to pick up dinner on the road. They also contract the only type of cancer that is thought to be contagious. Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) was first noted in the 1990s. When the devils bite each other, they spread the disease and it kills them within months. The tumors on their faces interfere with their ability to eat and they starve to death. Research is well underway and there are large scale efforts to quarantine healthy devils so that they can rebuild the population until research yields a cure or vaccine for DFTD. We saw this appeal for money to fund research at the Launceston Airport.
We saw some healthy devils when we were in New South Wales a few years ago; a wildlife reserve there has a good sized colony of very healthy devils. I suppose that because they are used to being around humans there, they were not in the least bit afraid of us. They just walked around their enclosure looking at us while we walked around looking at them. They could have been a little on the docile side because they were probably drowsy and sleep deprived. Devils are nocturnal and living in a wildlife reserve means that the devils have to get used to working the day shift. We saw the same behavior, for the most part, at the Devils@Cradle Center Interpretation and Viewing Centre just outside Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain National Park. The devils were only active when they thought a snack was imminent or if another devil was bothering him. We saw the devils “yawn” and our guide said that what we saw was not so much that he was yawning, but he was baring his teeth to show the other devil that he had teeth and was capable of using them for fighting. Apparently, as the devils age, their teeth stop growing and an elderly devil becomes quite defenseless without his teeth, so baring the teeth is a show of youth and vitality. Below is a photo of a devil yawning. This was always accompanied by loud screaming.
Devils are a bit like buzzards. They are not picky eaters and can smell carrion from one kilometer away. They rush to the scene and clean up the dead animal, providing a much needed service in the forest. As charter members of the Clean Plate Club, they leave nothing behind. If they could just dial back that scream, they might not seem so frightening and it might go a long way toward rehabilitating their reputation.