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Report from the other side of the world — Tasmania

by Deirdre Kessler

Feeding the Devils

I am sitting at the desk in the Kelly Street Writer’s Cottage in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Returned here yesterday from “Sounding the Earth” conference in Launceston. Yesterday afternoon drove home on the Midlands Hwy. in left-hand car, my first experience driving on left-hand roads. It’s far easier driving than being a passenger in left-hand-driving country.

I was in this same cottage at this same desk in October 2007, writing the novel about whaling days, looking up and out the wall of west-facing windows to Mt. Wellington or to my right out the wall of windows to the north (were the light comes from in this hemisphere) over the roofs of Salamanca Place, the old sandstone warehouses along the city’s wharf.

Here are the European goldfinches, red-masked, black-and-white heads, yellow wing bars—very showy—on the clothesline in back garden, about four meters away. Behind them, lilac bush and bush-like geraniums, white iris in bloom. It’s full-on spring here. Now they’re on the ground, closer. Yesterday I saw a galah, wedge-tail eagles cruising the upper air, a harrier, a merlin-like small hawk on a fencepost, and six pairs of superb blue fairy wrens.

Yesterday morning, the “Sounding the Earth” conference over, my host, CA Cranston, the convener of the conference, wanted her other house guest, the ASLEC-ANZ (Ass’n for the Study of Language, Environment, and Culture—Australia-New Zealand) treasurer, Barbara Holloway, and me to see Tassie devils, so we set out to the west of Launceston, about an hour’s drive, towards the Western Teir, to Mole Caves, where there is a wildlife rescue centre and Tasmanian devil education centre.

One of the carers, Sonya, gave a handful of us a tour of the recovery pens, set out on a huge property with mountain backdrop, pasture, pond, and eucalypt forest where wallabies roam free. Sonya, a young woman of aboriginal background, went into one outdoor wombat pen, complete with sheltered place, leafy piles of eucalypts, a deep hole (dug by the wombats), where there were three little (now almost 20 kg) wombats that had been rescued from the pouch of mother killed by truck on road. She picked up one and held it like a baby, cuddled and interacted with the young female as she told us about wombats, then she passed the wombat to us, and, one after another, we held her!

Sonya grabbed a tall, lidded white bucket and we followed her around other the outdoor pens. In one, two rescued koalas, in another a spotted-tail quoll lolling in the open end of a hollow log, on its back in the sun; in other large, open pen grown wombats, still not able to care for themselves; in another, tassie devils, one a female with young riding her back, though she kept well hidden.

The spotted-tail quoll we saw, lolling in the sun, sweet little face and fat belly, turns out, says Sonya, to be a vicious killer, who claws and bites prey many times its size to death, lingers long enough only to drink the blood, then leaves the carcass. The devils, who have ability to detect a scent two kilometres away, find the quolls’ kills, eat the entire prey, clean up the site.  The quolls are the ones who gave the devils much of their early bad reputation: graziers and foresters would come upon devils over kill, not realizing that the devils were scavenging the quolls’ leavings and had not killed the lamb, sheep, wallaby, wombat, other creature.

Out in the rocky pasture was an enormous pen surrounded by low fence. In the interior of the pen were boulders and a stand of young eucalypts and patches of dense, brushy undergrowth. Sonya went into the pen, made soft pishing noises. A tassie devil came to her and she picked it up by the tail. She later told us the devils’ tails are not like cats’ and dogs’ tails, but very, very sturdy so it doesn’t hurt them to be picked up this way; also, they cannot turn around to bite a person holding them by the tail. I gather their spines are not very flexible, and this was evident in the way they lope.

Sonya came outside the pen holding, cuddling, comforting, a tassie devil, who clung to her with forepaws—serious claws!—on either side of Sonya’s neck. Sonya said this one had some trust in her and she in the animal, as she had had to care for her from early on. This animal has cataracts and is blind. We touched her surprisingly soft back fur, watched her snuggle into Sonya’s arms and neck. Sonya did not offer to let us hold this devil.

We then went around to another part of the exterior of the pen, while Sonya did likewise inside it, with the bucket. When Sonya emerged on the far side of the pen, she was followed by four Tasmanian devils, loping in their strange-to-Northern-hemisphere-eyes gait—something unmammalish, almost serpentlike about their undulating lope.

Sonya apologized to anyone of us who might be sensitive to seeing a dead wallaby’s leg, but said this is what the tassie devils eat (the roadkill on Tas roads consists of wallaby, wombat, possum). She pulled the whole, furry back quarter, leg and tail, of a wallaby from the pail and held it as the tassie devils took hold to tear at it until they could get mouthfuls. They eat every single bit—bones, fur, everything. We heard the vocalizations that frightened the colonizers and saw sun shine through the ears of the little creatures, which makes their thin ears bright red, the exact red of the native cherry tree that is part of the Dreamtime story of Sonya told us, about how the devils got their red ears and white stripes.

The four devils grabbed, clamped down on (jaws capable of 300 kg of pressure), and chewed through and ripped the hindquarter apart. A fifth devil joined them, creating a ruckus. The fifth and another devil sparred on hindlegs, making eerie and fierce growling, howling sounds before they fell on the prey again. One littler devil worked on the furry wallaby tail, not competing with the others for the bloody and fleshy end. Sonya told us the devils are social feeders, but obviously there was rank demonstration between the sparring pair.

Before long, as Sonja talked and answered questions, the wallaby was reduced to ragged chunks that individuals carried off under a dense brush cave to eat. We could see them dimly and hear the chewing and occasional growl. Tassie devils are gorge eaters, capable of eating three times their body weight. About 27 different vocalizations have been recorded.

After the formal tour, CA and Barbara and I strolled the grounds, went into the enclosure around an enormous pond that has marsh at one end. Black swans and Shell ducks in the water, on the banks. CA got the idea of asking Sonya if she could bring the ten orphaned Shell ducklings she’s been caring for to the pond. Sonya said yes.

Rehabilitated, able-bodied ducks and swans leave the pond to migrate, but many return to the pond annually. I’d been helping in the mornings to tend the Shell ducklings at CA’s place; CA said we could come together next week to free the ducklings into the pond area, where they will be safer than they would be in a farmer’s pond, as the ducklings are now acclimated to people, to CA’s cat, and to her daughter’s dog—the dog has some herder in her and rounds up the ducks, gently. Other cats, dogs, and possums will not be so friendly.

The ducklings have to be put in cat-carrier and kept indoors and warm at night, then let loose for a bit in the morning to eat some worms from CA’s worm farm. We then put them in a rabbit cage on new patch of grass every day. CA put a cup in the big water dish because the ducklings want to be IN the water, not just drink it. CA used to keep chooks, so she had a feeder. When I was filling the water dish from bucket of water, I tilted it to pour water into dish, and instantly the ducklings climbed in and swam in the water in the angled bucket.

It was wonderful picking up the ducklings to put them in the cage. Nine of the ducklings are from one abandoned clutch—the mother killed, and one, whom CA named Dyson after her vacuum cleaner, is a few days older and noticeably bigger than the others. CA said the little ones instantly followed Dyson as if he were the mother. While I was staying at CA’s, she discovered Dyson was a female (the mature feathers were coming in, replacing the baby fluff, and Dyson’s sex was obvious from feather colouration). So we renamed her Dysonia.

At the rehabilitation centre we walked along to a large, outdoor habitat, with netting about 8-10 meters off the ground draped from the huge eucalypts. Inside the pens. Three wedge-tailed eagles, larger than bald eagles, who cannot fly from injuries early in their lives—one of them has been at the wildlife centre for 20 years, one for 25.

Down in the eucalypt forest, we saw wallabies and fed them chook food from the little bags of it sold at the interpretive centre. Wallabys have soft muzzles, furrier than horses or deer. There is also a night-creature building on the grounds, kept pitch dark save for a few low-wattage lights near the glassed-front cages for owl, sugar-glider possums (very sweet! small as hamsters), snakes, skinks. Took some moments for our eyes to adapt from the sun-glare to the dark. The owl was awake, staring at us with its bifocal eyes in its soft feathery face.

A morning in this country at 40 degrees south latitude.

So much to see and learn.

Deirdre Kessler spent autumn 2010 in Tasmania, first in Hobart at the Kelly Street writer’s cottage, and then as artist in residence in the King’s Bridge cottage in the Cataract Gorge, Launceston, Tasmania.

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