I grew up on a farm on the north west coast of Tasmania. In the late 1950’s a man came to see my father on some business or other. While he was there he produced a sugar bag which he carefully opened to show us the most ferocious creature imaginable. It was spitting and snarling and doing its damnedest to escape. I can’t remember how he came to have it, or what he intended doing with it. All I know is that it remains the only time I’ve seen a Tasmanian Devil outside a zoo.
THE VERY DEVIL TO PREVENT ESCAPING!
Tasmanian devils hate to be confined, and who can blame them? They also appear to be n a constant state of irritation, rather like myself. Could this be why I find them so endearing?
For many years, as with the ill-fated Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), devils have been sent to zoos and animals parks around Australia and overseas. In June 1906 a specimen of each was shipped off to London aboard Orient line’s mail ship, Omrah. However, before the vessel had even cleared Australian waters, the devil escaped from its cage. Crew and passengers joined forces to try and catch it, but it had vanished, last spotted on the upper deck. It was three weeks before it was found, hiding under some equipment and still on the upper deck. However, it seems the little fellow had been sneaking down to the stores or the kitchens at night. When it was recaptured it was quite a bit fatter than when it left Tasmania.
Tasmanian devils are essentially nocturnal, No doubt the sight of the creature asleep in it’s cage had lulled the crew of the Omrah into complacency. The photo below was taken at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.
When WWI was declared in 1914 the Tasmanian 12th battalion was one of the first raised. The men sailed off in the troopship Geelong, and with them went their mascot, a Tassie devil. It proved impossible to tame, and in Cairo the only person who could cope with it was D company’s cook, ‘Bluey’ Thompson.
He probably just fed it constantly. Sadly, nobody knew what happened to the devil when the 12th left for Gallipoli. The Cairo Zoo had expressed an interest in it, so let’s hope the 12th’s little mascot found a happy home.
HOLLYWOOD GOES TO THE DEVIL!
I don’t remember the Lane sisters at all, but it seems they were very well known back in the 1930’s. In 1939 , Warner Brothers asked the Tasmanian Government to send a Tassie devil to Los Angeles as a gift for Rosemary Lane, the oldest of the trio. The chosen female devil had two youngsters, which meant that Rosemary’s sisters Pricilla, and Lola did not have to feel left out. In turn, the young actresses donated them to the city’s zoo.
Of course, the inevitable happened. Within a week the two juvenile critters had gnawed through their wire cage and escaped into Griffith Zoological Park. ‘It’s a devil of a situation’, quipped Superintendent Gilbert Scott. ‘I guess we underestimated their capabilities.’ The devils were described by the Los Angeles press as, ‘black and white, teddy bear-like animals.’ Hmm, no wonder their feisty character came as a surprise.
It took a long time for Tasmanians themselves to manage the little escape artists. In 1946, six devils were being held in Launceston’s City Park, before being shipped to Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Five burrowed under the concrete floor of their cage and only two were recaptured.
In recent years the very existence of the devils has been threatened by the cruel spread of facial tumours. The demise of the thylacine (caused almost entirely by man) is so deeply regretted that there has been an enormous effort to save the devils. Insurance communities have been established outside mainland Tasmanian and there are positive reports of a vaccine. Maybe all is not lost.
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