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A Dingo Ate Australia

Australia’s prowling predator is either a vicious wild dog that attacks children and devours farm animals, or a loving and devoted household pet. It just depends on whom you ask.


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Photos by Angus Lee Forbes.

Matt Hutchings, forty-two, and his partner Desiree Hemberger, thirty-one, look like your typical professional couple, and in many ways they are. Hemberger is a corporate consultant. Hutchings is a lawyer. They have no kids yet—“We’re thinking next year,” says Hemberger. They work long hours. Their small Victorian terrace house is set in the neighborhood of Newtown, a hub for the more eccentric members of Sydney society. In recent years though, the musicians and hippies have made way for young professionals with schnauzers on leashes and babies in Bugaboo prams. The first signal to visitors that something is different about the Hutchings-Hemberger household is at their front door. During the day, canine claws click-clack on the wooden floors while excited snufflings and whining are heard, but no barking. It’s a different situation at night. When darkness descends and fruit bats fly through the air, one might hear three sets of piercing howls, a sign that the couple’s pack of pure-bred pet dingoes—Gerda, Persephone and Bear—are excitedly welcoming their owners home.

Canis lupus dingo is Australia’s only native dog species. They appear in archaeological records in Western Australian rock paintings and recent DNA testing suggests they may have been here as long as 18,000 years. Like wolves, dingoes are a primitive dog species—a living, breathing ancient ancestor of your pet pug. Since they are more closely related to a wolf than a pug, they are not, however, common pets. Mention you are on your way to visit some “pet dingoes” and you are likely to get a shocked response followed by questions about the danger involved.

Pet dingoes look deceptively like any other dog. The honey-coloured trio wear collars. They walk on leashes. They visit the dog park. But it would be a mistake to lump them in the same basket as the fat Labrador across the road. Their inability to bark is just one of the many things distinguishing dingoes from their domestic cousins. “It can be disconcerting. As our plumber said, if they were barking it’d be fine. Their silence freaks people out,” says Hutchings.

Also unlike typical domestic dogs, dingoes are used to highly developed social structures that require complex and high-maintenance relationships between the dogs and their owners. It is essential that Hutchings and Hemberger operate as part of the pack and subscribe to canine etiquette. The couple is expected to participate in an elaborate greeting process every night. Fifteen minutes must be spent celebrating the reunion—patting, talking, playing—to avoid deeply offending the canine trio. They are acutely sensitive. They sulk if they are told off, they hate when the couple fights and they don’t like to be separated from each other.

Hutchings plays the role of the alpha male and Hemberger is the alpha female, but it wasn’t always that way. As a late arrival to the pack, Hemberger had to earn her place in the canine-human family. And it wasn’t easy. They put her through her paces. (“Persephone used to constantly wee on my underwear!”) It took three dates for Hutchings to even tell his new squeeze about his furry friends. “He hadn’t even mentioned he owned dogs! We were sitting in a restaurant and the topic of dogs came up. And I asked what kind he had,” says Hemberger. “He said dingoes and I almost fell off my chair. I called my mum and she said ‘Break up with him. Now! He is obviously crazy.’” Two months later the couple were living together and after some teething issues, she was smitten.

Bear hunts for food in the kitchen.

They are intensely affectionate. Gerda sleeps in the couple’s bed. “When they like you they really like you,” says Hutchings, watching as the thirty-three-pound Persephone crawls into my lap, then intently and relentlessly licks my face and every inch of my arms to the point where I am at risk of being welcomed to death by her friendliness. “She is very maternal; she is grooming you!” laughs Hemberger. Bear pushes his head into my lap, looking for a pat, and is subjected to a low, menacing growl from his jealous sister. No pats allowed for Bear. He saunters off to sniff around the kitchen cupboards before settling down to sit on a rug. Gerda, the quiet, well-behaved ‘mature’ dingo, watches on, ear raised, her beautiful almond-shaped eyes sleepy but still intently alert.

They find it very difficult to deal with change. Moving would be a nightmare. “We’d need to stay home with them for a week,” says Hemberger. They can’t be kenneled and due to their fierce bonds with their owners they can’t be re-homed as they don’t recover from the rejection. “The first time you go away they think you have died. They won’t eat and they fret. The first time I went away for a period with work they were totally pissed off with me,” says Hutchings. “They make great pets, but it is conditional on the fact you are not going to get sick of them and give them away after five years. You are not going to take them overseas or do anything drastic. You need to commit to the fact that it is a long-term commitment,” says Hemberger. “They can live up to eighteen to twenty years in captivity.”

Hutchings and Hemberger know of at least five other pet dingoes living in neighboring urban areas. It’s one of the many contradictions in the narrative of the Australian dingo that in New South Wales you don’t have to have a special permit to own one as a pet. They are recognized under the 1998 Companion Animal Act as a domestic pet and like your neighbor’s poodle, just need to be registered and microchipped. In three states you need a permit to own one. In other states the situation is darker. In Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia if you are caught with one in your possession it will be confiscated and killed.

Four years ago, when Hutchings brought home two adorable six-week-old female dingo pups, he had no idea that he was unwittingly committing himself to a role as an urban ambassador for dingo rights. The questions began at Sydney Airport when airline staff bauked after discovering the two fluffy puppies in the carrier were more wolf than Lassie. The couple finds themselves constantly fielding curious questions from the public and joke about creating matching T-shirts that say “Yes, they are dingoes.”

Jokes aside, Hutchings and Hemberger take their role as owners seriously. Dingoes have enough of an image problem as it is. They are widely associated with the pop culture catchphrase “A dingo ate my baby!” after the notorious 1980 case when a dingo was alleged to have killed a nine-month old baby. The last thing dingoes need are more negative narratives added to the folklore.

Persephone and Bear, the two Alpine dingoes, are joined at the hip. They bicker and play like naughty siblings and pine when they are separated. Alpines have thicker coats than dingoes found in other areas of Australia and have been almost eradicated from the wild due to hybridization with wild domestic dogs and clashes with agriculturalists. Gerda is a desert breed with a finer pelt and a penchant for beds. She is more placid and athletic than the other two who sleep outdoors and can be destructive, ripping into couch cushions if left inside. The others are champion diggers, whereas Gerda can jump a seven-foot fence if she feels like it. And that’s where we reach the real difference between dingoes and domestic dogs. Pet dingoes maintain their free will. They resist following orders. Ask them to fetch or sit on demand and they give you a “Why should I?” look just like a person would. You are a peer, not a master. Forget about trying to train them. Their fierce intelligence means they are more likely to end up training you. It’s a privilege to know them, but forget thinking you ever truly own them.

“Matt is the boss or leader but they won’t do what you say most of the time,” says Hemberger. “Which is one reason we don’t let them off the leash. You can call and whistle and do everything. But they remain their own master. They come to you if they want to.”

They are almost rational, sometimes intensely human, in the way they respond to situations. “Say you take a tennis ball to the park and throw it, they bring it back,” says Hutchings. “But if you throw it again they get confused and leave it, looking at you like ‘Well, if you don’t want it then I won’t give it to you again!’”

Persephone on a walk.

They clearly communicate their wishes and desires, too. On a walk around the block, Persephone sits and begins cocking her head, pointing and chattering. She wants to go to the dog park. Bear stops, looks at Hemberger and Hutchings, looks at Persephone and also begins pointing his snout in the direction of the dog park. “No guys! We are not going,” says Hutchings firmly. Persephone responds by putting her paws into the ground and absolutely refusing to budge until Hutchings has to pick her up and carry her. They have developed other ways to tell the couple what they want: a scratch on the right-hand side of the door from Persephone means “We need more food,” the left side means “I want to come inside.”

Hutchings jokes that Persephone and Gerda came to live in Newtown by choice. And there is something in that. If they hadn’t shown interest in him, they would have ended up like their siblings who live in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries. A protected existence compared to in the wild, where dingoes and humans are engaged in a bitter and highly volatile feud.

The story of how the dingoes came to live in Newtown begins almost 600 miles south of Sydney in Toolern Vale, a rural community forty minutes outside of Melbourne in the foothills of the Macedon Ranges.

Lynn and Peter Watson live just off the highway on a secluded ridge. Their forty-acre property borders a state forest. It’s quiet and picturesque with expansive views across rolling bush. Kangaroos creep out of the forest at dusk to graze on the couple’s lawn and blue and red rosellas swoop and dip across the driveway. “We have a couple of eagles that live in the forest there and I believe that they are totem animals,” says Lynn Watson. “Aboriginal people knew that. Those eagles stay here because our dingoes stay here. The three species—human, dingoes and eagle—move together.”

For two decades, the Watsons have given over their property to the preservation of Australian dingoes. At the moment they are “full up to pussy’s bow” with thirty animals housed in an expansive series of outbuildings at the back of the property. The dingoes live in pairs. “They mate for life,” Watson says.

They have husbands and wives. It’s important in the wild to be bonded, a female can’t raise a litter alone.”

The couple looked for five years before they found an appropriate site for their dingoes. Their infrastructure is carefully designed to keep the animals in. “Dingoes are the best Houdinis: they climb, they dig, they jump,” Watson says in admiration. Fenced paddocks surrounding the enclosure provide areas for activity and play, allowing visitors to watch the dingoes and meet the young during the annual puppy season.

The Watsons got their start in the pedigree dog world and Lynn still travels around the globe judging dog shows. The couple transferred their affections and energy from breeding domestic dogs to Australia’s native dog twenty-five years ago when they realized no one was doing anything to protect dingoes.

On the wall in their living room is a print of the now extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger. The large carnivorous marsupial once shared the title of Australia’s only apex land predator with dingoes. The last Tasmanian Tiger died in a zoo in the 1930s, hunted out of existence by hostile farmers who blamed the animal for stock losses. It’s an ever-present reminder for the Watsons of the potential fate of dingoes.

“Our reason for existence is to maintain the remnants of the pure original gene pool and keep dingoes going into the future,” says Watson. Over two decades, the Watsons have amassed the largest collection of pure-bred DNA-tested dingoes in the world. Their dogs come from all over, rescued by sympathetic wildlife workers in states hostile to the animals, who can’t bear the idea of turning them over to the authorities to be shot. Others were picked up in the wild as pups but donated to the sanctuary by owners who weren’t prepared for the unique challenges of managing a tenacious fully-grown dingo.

Lynn Watson on her property in Toolern Vale. Photo by Madeline Hinchy.

Lynn Watson may have the energy of a much younger woman, but this afternoon she’s visibly exhausted. The couple and a team of devoted volunteers have just spent two days fundraising for the center, taking some of the dogs to events in nearby rural towns for a meet-and-greet with the community. They made just over $450 AUD, enough to treat the entire population to prevent heartworm, but not as much as they would have liked.

The couple are in their seventies but see retirement as an impossible dream. They receive no government funding, but their independence isn’t by choice. Dingoes are a controversial species. There’s little funding in Australia for research into the breed, let alone investment in their preservation.

Keeping their dingoes in impeccable condition is expensive. The Watsons must rely on Peter’s income as a financial advisor and funds from their dingo-breeding program to keep the sanctuary afloat. In 2006, the Watsons moved to establish the Australian Dingo Foundation. When they are gone, the property will remain a sanctuary in perpetuity. They have big plans for their site and want to build a library, function center and schoolroom so they can educate the public about dingoes and their special traits.

Lynn Watson is like the Jane Goodall of the dingo world. Her closeness to dingoes has unlocked many of their secrets. She is a welcome presence in their dens—the animals rush to meet her and lick her face while she coos endearments. “Saxon, you were such a good boy yesterday!” Watson remarks to one as we enter. She then introduces Sassafrass, a remarkable-looking, rare white dingo. White dingos are mostly found around the salt plains in Lake Eyre where they blend into the bleached landscape.

Researchers from all over the world come to stay with the Watsons and observe their animals. The Newtown dingoes, Gerda, Persephone and Bear, were born at the sanctuary through their breeding program. Bear’s parents, Teddy and Opal, remain on site and are highly prized members of the program. “No puppy here is born unless it has a home to go to,” says Watson. “We have to have the orders in by February before the breeding season begins. Our contraception is a steel gate between the animals. Applications are in writing and if we don’t get enough, we don’t breed.”

Most of their clients are wildlife sanctuaries or zoos who want them for their displays. But occasionally there are people like Hutchings and Hemberger, who are interested in having them as domestic pets. The Watsons were instrumental in getting the Australian dingo recognized as a domestic dog breed by the Australian National Kennel Council in the early 1990s when Peter was the Council’s president. The recognition led to the deregulation of dingo ownership laws in New South Wales and opened up the possibility for permits to own the animals in the other states. But rather than being proud, the Watsons now regret the role they played in changing the dingoes’ status. Once they got their own pair, Watson says they quickly realized they had made a mistake.

“They are not a dog,” Watson says. “They look like a dog, that’s fine, but that’s their undoing.” She believes if they were more exotic-looking, like lions or tigers, the apex predators of other continents, people might think twice about shooting them.

The signs that dingoes weren’t dogs became apparent to the couple immediately. “We had a huge background in knowing dogs and we quickly realized, these are something else. This is a wild animal,” Watson says. The first thing they noticed was the difference in their pelt. A dingo’s coat covers their entire body, while domestic dogs have bare stomachs. Other physiological signs include their flexibility. Dingoes can rotate their heads to look along their backbone, and if their head can squeeze to fit in a space, they can manipulate their whole body to follow. Then there is the fact that dingoes only breed once a year.

Desiree pats Persephone.

But the main indicators that these were not dogs were behavioral and cognitive. Watson says they quickly discovered dingoes can be tamed—in that they can connect with humans—but they cannot be domesticated to the point of being an obedient, docile animal while they stay pure. Left inside the home, they are likely to turn destructive due to boredom. “They are so smart. They make dogs look so dumb. Dingoes can unscrew screws; if you look on Youtube there’s footage of them using tools,” says Watson. “There are videos of Teddy opening gates, but that’s not enough. He then went and let every dingo out.” Teddy’s generosity meant the Watsons had to change the gates.

It’s not quirky hearsay. Dr. Bradley Smith, a research fellow in human and animal psychology, has done numerous experiments with the animals, backing up the Watsons’ observations. (There is video footage online capturing a male dingo moving a table to access an out-of-reach food source.) The evidence is clear that the dingoes’ problem-solving abilities and cognitive intelligence are at a level vastly beyond that of domestic dogs who through domestication have lost many of the smarts they would need to survive in the wild.

Like wolves, dingoes are ancestors of domestic dogs. Unlike wolves, dingoes seem to have an innate curiosity about humans. Early European settlers were quick to notice their “curious hankering for man,” recording their own encounters with the animals who would follow them at a distance. Captain Arthur Philip was the first European to try to tame a dingo and observed their dualistic nature, describing them as “elegant” yet “on the whole, fierce and cruel.” Colonialists also observed the animals’ close relationships with Aboriginal people. Historic records from colonial times show that Indigenous Australians were aware wild dingoes weren’t able to be tamed, but managed to have close bonds with pups they’d taken from the wild and reared. In nineteenth-century Victoria, naturalists observed Aboriginal people performing mortuary ceremonies for their dogs and mourning the animals.

“If you don’t get a dingo in its first sixteen weeks of life then you can’t have a bond,” says Watson. “The window closes. And the bond can be very loose, but there is nothing like the bond you can form if you get them as a youngster. And that’s the difference between a dingo and a wolf. A wolf can never connect, but a dingo can, and that’s how the dingo became the ancestor of all dogs—because of that ability to connect across the species barrier. It wants to connect.”

Despite the potential for remarkable cross-species bonds, Watson is clearly uneasy about the idea of dingoes as domestic pets. She feels she has to condone the practice to ensure the species’ survival. “I do not recommend them as pets. Ever. I recognize that some people are going to benefit the species by having them. But I filter people before I give them one.” One of her main questions is, “What are your plans for the next twenty years?”

“I have a gray area in my head because I am desperate to ensure the blood lines continue,” Watson adds. “Our long-term goal is that one day they can be returned to the wild in safe areas.” While they are careful with breeding, a dingo litter can have anywhere from three to eight young. If there are surplus puppies in a season, they can’t keep them all at the sanctuary, and not just for practical reasons. “Say a disease hit us—this is the biggest collection in the world. What if they were all wiped out? We need diversified bloodlines to be placed in other areas. Also I see the utter joy that people get out of having them.” On average, in a breeding year they pass up to four a year into domestic ownership. The others have been sent to zoos around Australia, and occasionally overseas.

Whatever their abilities, dingoes have a PR problem of epic and folkloric proportions that is difficult to remedy. Watson won’t deny that dingoes do attack sheep but feels that the accounts of losses are grossly exaggerated. She openly scoffs at recent accounts of a “dingo plague” in rural areas saying it is impossible and part of the orchestrated journalism the farming lobby use to justify killing dingoes. “It’s a conflict of money against nature,” Watson says. “It doesn’t matter what industry you are in, there will be loss from spoilage or other factors. Whereas apparently farmers are meant to be exempt.” She doesn’t believe dingoes are dangerous or generally aggressive, and she doesn’t believe a dingo ate any baby.

The pack goes for a walk.

It’s become legend that nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain was taken by a dingo. The Chamberlain family were camping near Uluru (called Ayers Rock in 1980) when the tragedy occurred. Hearing the baby cry out, Azaria’s mother Lindy Chamberlain says she went to check and reportedly saw a dingo run out of their tent carrying something. She then discovered Azaria was missing and called out the line that has gained mythic status: “A dingo has got my baby!” The child’s body was never found, and much of the public was skeptical of Lindy Chamberlain’s story. She was convicted of killing the child and served three years in jail before the case was overturned and she was acquitted, following a long appeals process. The mystery, which has inspired several films, including the Meryl Streep vehicle A Cry in the Dark, remains a deep part of the Australian psyche.

Twenty-two years after the incident, a fourth coronial inquest into the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain was held. The coroner ruled that a dingo was responsible for her death. Lynn Watson, however, remains unconvinced. The story does not tally with her and others’ observations of the animal’s behavior. “The truth is a dingo did not take that baby,” Watson asserts. “To switch on their prey drive, something needs to run and panic and scream in fear. The baby was lying in a bassinet, in a tent. But it is not necessarily outside of the realm of behavior of wild camp dogs. I am not saying a dingo couldn’t hurt a baby, but I am absolutely sure in that case a dingo didn’t.”

In recent years, there have been other attacks on children, predominantly on Fraser Island, a popular tourist area where the animals have come into ever-closer and uneasy contact with people. Watson says the problem is a lack of knowledge of the animal and mismanagement by authorities. “Dingoes do not see humans as prey—ever. But they are curious and they have an innate knowledge that where there are people there is potentially an easy living. They are here to survive, so they are going to take the way to survive and if that means taking food from tourists, they will. But they prefer wildlife.” Her advice if you encounter a dingo: don’t act like prey. Stand still and don’t scream and run.

Dingoes have been in conflict with European settlers for over 200 years, deemed a threat to livestock that could not be tolerated by farmers. No survey has been done so it is unknown how many dingoes are left in the wild. DNA testing has shown that purebred populations are dwindling due to inter-breeding with domestic dogs, as well as control measures used to wipe out feral dogs. It’s feared that there are almost no pure dingoes left on the mainland in eastern Australia. “Wild dingoes are doomed unless we do something about it. They are going the way of the gray wolf in America,” says Watson.

Of course, not everyone would be upset about that, including many farmers. As national wild dog facilitator at the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center, Greg Misud is at the frontline between both the pro- and anti-dingo forces. He works with farmers, private landowners and government bodies on measures to manage the population. He says it’s all about restoring and moderating populations so they can reach sustainable levels.

The pack at Matt and Desiree’s house.

“It’s not a clear-cut issue and from a management perspective we work to try and limit the impact of dogs on livestock and on biodiversity,” says Misud. He adds that in some areas where there are particularly large densities of dingoes, livestock losses are tremendous and farmers are being forced out of the industry, distressed financially and emotionally by attacks on sheep and cattle. “If the (dingoes) killed an animal and ate it, it wouldn’t be so bad, but in 99.9 percent of the cases they maim and injure the animals without killing them.” Misud relays stories of farmers waking up to discover 30 of their animals have horrific injuries such as their internal organs showing externally, but are still alive.

The 500-kilometer cross state “dog fence” was built at the turn of the twentieth century to keep dingoes and wild dogs out of sheep pastures in Southern Australia. It demonstrates how conflicted attitudes are towards dingoes in Australia and how powerful the country’s agricultural interests are. Dingoes are the only native Australian animal deemed a pest and exterminated with as much vigor as the introduced species that are devastating Australian biodiversity—feral rabbits, cats and foxes. In forty percent of the state of South Australia, south of the dog fence where sheep are the predominant livestock, all landholders are tasked with controlling dingoes and the government assists them with a poison bait program. Meanwhile, in the sixty percent of the state north of the fence, where cattle are the only livestock or there is no livestock at all, state policy recognizes dingoes as a legitimate wildlife species, and thus they are not targeted by law.

Still, many farmers and government officials on both sides of the divide shoot and poison the animals for a variety of reasons. Ironically, one of the main sectors that kill dingoes are conservationists trying to protect other endangered wildlife species.

“Essentially conservation areas are where the dingoes are most heavily persecuted because they are being killed when cats and foxes are killed—with poisons. I am yet to find a national park that isn’t full of 1080 poisoned bait,” says Dr. Arian Wallach.

Dr. Wallach is one of the researchers involved in a groundbreaking study that might prove the dingoes’ saving grace. Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world, mostly due to the havoc caused by native populations of feral foxes and cats.

The biodiversity scientist and her colleagues have shown that dingoes are the secret weapon that can control Australia’s feral animal problem. It’s been discovered that where dingo populations are strong, feral fox and cat populations dwindle, leading to a boom in native marsupials.

Dr. Wallach and her colleagues have been collaborating with researchers who have been involved in the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Their research has proved startlingly similar, highlighting the important role that predators like wolves and dingoes play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. “We have only one choice if we are going to leave farms to the next generation and that is to incorporate and enable coexistence with big predators,” says Wallach. From her base in Evelyn Downs, a cattle station situated in the harsh South Australian outback, Wallach and her partner Adam O’Neill have been practising predator-friendly pastoralism with their own cattle.

“I can say from our own property that killing dingoes kills your own country,” Wallach observes. “Because even if you manage to get rid of the dingoes, and reduce stock losses, then you have an increase in all sorts of other herbivores like kangaroos, emus, goats and rabbits. They become a major competition for vegetation and degrade the landscape.”

The research has revealed other information supporting the idea that indiscriminate killing of dingoes can generate unexpected consequences for farmers, including population explosions among the canines. Left to their own devices, the animals will regulate their own populations. “They have only one breeding pair in an entire territory. So if you kill dingoes and the family breaks down, they will splinter and create new packs,” Wallach says. Social breakdowns in packs seem to lead to increases in attacks on livestock by “delinquent” juvenile animals that haven’t learned appropriate behavior from their elders.

Some farmers may still think the only good dingo is a dead dingo, but there are signs official attitudes to the animals are changing. In September 2013, Dr. Wallach’s research won her and her colleagues the Eureka award, a major Australian environmental research award presented by the Australian Museum and supported by government organisations, institutions, companies and individuals committed to Australian science. Conservation regions where dingoes were persecuted are beginning to transition to dingo-minded land management and there is more discussion in the public domain. “I can’t say there is a revolution of people putting their poison away and guns down, but I can see it happening,” says Wallach.

Desiree Hemberger, Matt Hutchings, Gerda, Bear and Persephone sit outside.

Wild or domestic, there is something bewitching about Australia’s native dog. On a dark night, from her property deep in the desert, while Persephone, Bear and Gerda are welcoming their family home back in Sydney, Dr. Wallach takes pleasure in listening as the threesome’s wild cousins stalk the desert landscape. “I hate quiet nights,” she says. “I love it when they howl. I know they are talking to each other and their voices are beautiful. I am hoping for a time when more and more Australians will be able to hear howl-filled nights.”

Madeleine Hinchy is a Sydney-based writer and radio producer with a special interest in telling stories about creativity, people’s passion projects and unusual pursuits.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published December 25, 2013. This article is republished here with permission.

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