Dining with the Tasmanian devil

Derek Grzelewski hunts for the elusive and misunderstood Tassie devil.
By Derek Grzelewski December 1, 2013 Reading Time: 11 Minutes

This story was first published in 2003 (AG70). We take a look back at Tassie devils before the facial tumour disease took hold.

THE AUTUMN DUSK
descends quickly over the tall swap gum forest south of Smithton in north-west Tasmania as I ready myself for another night’s adventures. Head-torch, spotlight, roadmap, a vacuum flask of coffee-I know it’ll be another long haul. When the darkness sets in, I fire up the campervan’s engine and my nocturnal safari begins.

Along a corrugated forestry road, my headlights probe the way ahead like crayfish antennae, revealing red and yellow eyes that stare at me warily, then vanish in an instant. Thump! Thump! Thump! The hopping of wallabies recedes into the night like a diminuendo on a drum, and an occasional wombat, surprised by my headlights, breaks into a panic trot. The Tasmanian night hums with the mystery of the unseen. In 1982, only a short drive from here, an experienced wildlife ranger reported seeing a thylacine, alive and so close he could count all 12 black stripes arching across its sandy back. I am, however, not looking for apparitions of the Tasmanian tiger. My quarry is its surviving relative, the Tasmanian devil.

Tasmanian devil pre-dinner drinks

Maybe it was the childhood Bugs Bunny cartoons featuring that unmistakable whirlwind ogre Taz, or the larger-than-life reputation of the beast, or the fact that among the world’s carnivorous marsupials they are a standalone success story, I’ve always been fascinated by the devils. Yet I’ve never seen one. And that’s despite the devils reaching peak historical numbers an estimated 100,000-150,000 of them sniffing through the Tasmanian country side every night. They’re so synonymous with Tasmania that the Parks and Wildlife Service has chosen it for its emblem. Though I have walked, climbed, camped and fly-fished through much of Tasmania’s back country, I’ve not so much as caught a glimpse of the Tassie devil. Which now only strengthens my resolve.

I’ve become something of a road-kill warden and, as I chug along, my heart races at the sight of every carcass. “The devils can’t resist an easy meal, and they’ll be less wary of a vehicle than a person on foot,” Hobart zoologist Menna Iones told me earlier. “Look for road-kills and you may find devils. For them, roads are like free takeaway restaurants.”

Alas, this is my third consecutive shift of a night-long, lead-eye-lid vigil. The hours pass by as if in slow motion and I drive many second-gear kilometres; I see enough road-kills to open a pet-food shop. Around 4 a.m., finding the devil seems just as likely as coming across a thylacine. Devil! Devil! Torment not my curiosity. Show thyself. Let me get some sleep.

Due to the lack of the real thing, I’ve been consulting encyclopaedias and other popular sources, and they sketch a vicious portrait of something between a bear cub and a pit bull terrier, with an impressive array of blunt chompers and the jaw gape of a hippo. Even their long-time researcher, Tasmanian biologist Eric Guiler, called the devils ugly, concluding that their greatest protection is a total lack of economic value. Others have described the devils as “the smelliest, greediest, worst-tempered animal on Earth”, while a wildlife video took a thriller approach: “Murderous and malevolent…with gore-encrusted faces, these slashed and disfigured undertakers terrorise Tasmania.” After three long and uneventful nights I wouldn’t have minded a little bit of this terror, but no such luck. See no devil, hear no devil.

***

Common name: Tasmanian devil
Scientific name: Sarcophilus harrisii
Family: Dasyuridae (carnivorous marsupials)
Distribution: Once found throughout Australia. Since arrival of dingo approx. 3500 years ago, confined to Tasmania, mainly in open forests and woodlands
Status: Protected
Movement: Travels 10-20 km a night within home range
Weight: Male, 5-13 kg; female, 4.5-9 kg
Habits: Nocturnal. Dens in underground burrows. Voice includes a range of sounds from snorts, low barks and continuous growling, which increases in intensity to yowling and screaming, especially when fighting over food
Colour: Black with variable white markings on chest, shoulder and rump; fat stores in tail base
Food: Mostly wombats, wallabies, possums, small mammals and birds. An efficient scavenger, eats anything of animal origin and consumes all of a carcass except the largest bones
Reproduction: Mating Feb-Mar, giving birth three weeks later; up to four young carried in pouch for 4-5 months, weaned at 9 months
Average lifespan: 5 years

***

Then, a glimmer of hope. On a guesthouse noticeboard I find a plea for volunteers to help in a study of the devils in Freycinet National Park, a peninsula of pink granite mountains forested with eucalypts, midway along Tasmania’s east coast. I pack the camper and set out for Freycinet to meet Menna, a jovial woman who spends nine months of the year in the field, studying dasyurids, the carnivorous marsupial family that includes Tasmanian devils, thylacines and quolls.

Like the devils, she is on the run most of her waking hours, often even forgetting to eat, something no devil would ever do. The failure of my search was to be expected, she says. In 12 years of study she has only ever seen half a dozen wild devils. Fortunately, the beasts are predictably easy to trap. In a 100-square-kilometre study area, Menna has captured 44 devils and fitted them with radio collars spiced with cayenne pepper. The condiment is to protect the electronic circuitry, as the devils are equipped with an industrial strength digestive system and will gnaw at anything even remotely edible.

Nick Mooney, a biologist and friend of Menna’s – and a ‘devilphile’ – has found in their droppings aluminium foil and steel pot scrapers, parts of leather boots, a wallaby foot complete with snare, the head of a tiger snake and numerous quills from an echidna.

Tasmanian devils have the biting power of a dog four times their weight, Menna says, which gives a large, 12-kh male the bite of a 50-kg hound. Such teeth are a formidable weapon, and to avoid serious injuries, the devils have developed sophisticated rituals of stand-off and bluff. They communicate and establish their hierarchy with nips and bites, and a new arrival at a roadside feast will often back into the carcass, bearing all the outrage of its fellow carnivores on its thick-skinned rump. Only the males fighting for a mate and the females tired of a mate’s attention really mean business.

Head-to-head, they squabble, often standing ‘shirt fronting’ each other, sometimes locking those hydraulic-press jaws on each other’s cheek or neck and trying to pull their opponent’s head off in a violent tug of war. The injuries from such duels can be horrific, and although mitigated by the devils’ super-high threshold of pain and their phenomenal healing abilities, they can leave their faces hideously scarred. As we talk, Menna separates myth from fact. To begin with, the devils only emit a scent when scared; when relaxed, they gives off a pleasant scent of lanolin.

They are meticulously clean, grooming like cats. The devils are, on the whole, shy and wary animals, Menna says, which is why even Tasmanians rarely get a chance to see them. But there’s one particular trait that has been the devil’s greatest undoing. When frightened, confronted, or otherwise made to feel uncertain, the devils first blush – the blood pumped to their heads turning their furless ears a hellish red -and then…they yawn. Animal psychologists call this yawning displacement behaviour, and for the devils it has been a public-relations disaster. It gives them the meanest pit bull terrier look, which is ironic because, according to Menna, in reality, having showed off its fangs, the devil rarely attacks. It’d much rather back out, creeping away in slow motion.

After dusk, I accompany Menna on the nightly patrol in her ‘devil bus’ a four-wheel-drive ute, whose tray has been fitted with a swivelling, tower-like antenna and a chair. The entire contraption is in effect a mobile radio receiver which, when cross-referenced with four similar mountain-top sentries staffed by the volunteers, shows the location and movements of each radio-tagged devil. 

In a clearing with a moonlit vista of the peninsula, Menna begins scanning through the frequencies. Beep! Beep! Beep! The receiver picks up individual devils, now at the height of their activities. The radio crackles with the voices of volunteers, plotting the movements of the animals. The information is later fed into a computer to reveal the home ranges and interaction between the animals, giving the researchers an idea of population dynamics.

We travel and work though the night under the bejewelled southern sky, changing locations, listening out, rigging and taking down the receiver. It would have been a thoroughly pleasant outing were it not for one nagging thought: despite three weeks in the field, only one of the volunteers has caught a glimpse of a devil scurrying across the road, its thick carrot of a rail arched into a question mark, and bobbing away in an unmistakable rocking horse canter. This is the problem with the devils, Menna says. Because they are an unseen presence, they’re much maligned but poorly understood. “When I tell the local farmers that I’m trapping devil,” she says, “the standard reply is: ‘I hope you’re not letting them go’.”

Tasmanian devils the underdogs of marsupials

Devils are commonly considered the underdogs of the marsupial ecosystem, vermin in their own homeland. They have been blamed for raiding poultry yards, hunting sheep and lambs and some country Tasmanians routinely exorcise them from their pastures by way of poisoned bait and bullet. In 1986, Androo Kelly took over the Trowunna Wildlife Park, at Mole Creek, in the Great Western Tiers, and he placed at the gate a bus-sized statue of the devil. It would serve as a totem for different kind of exorcism he was about to perform: banishing fear and ignorance of the animal. Androo is now the devil’s most ardent advocate in Tasmania, developing Trowunna into both a refuge for the injured and orphaned animals and as centre for public awareness where, he says, people can see the devil for what it is.

At Trowunna, under tall eucalypts, I sit on the stone-wall fence of the devils’ enclosure. It’s just after feeding time and the residents still squabble over their daily rations of road-kill, tearing off chunks and cantering away to eat them in peace, but always returning for more. Sitting next to me, Androo unfolds his theory of just how his favourite animals fell into such ill repute.

Tasmania was once Van Diemen’s Land – the most feared British penal colony where some 57,000 convicts were forced to work in the most wretched conditions. It was hell on Earth, ringing with the clinking of leg irons and chains. But at night there was also another sound, a high-pitched scream that came from the bush. This was the wail of the devils settling their disputes, but it sounded awfully like Satan’s macabre laughter. Without electric light, the devils would have been even harder to see than they are today, though no doubt the convicts and settlers would eventually come across remains of their feasts.

Because the animals fed in a mob, it was assumed that they hunted like that too. Up to 22 devils have been recorded feeding on one carcass, and there were popular stories of dogs gone missing from chains and cows being devoured overnight, with only gnawed hooves and horns remaining. Tasmania’s beaches and wilderness now attract international travellers, and the former convict houses of terror have become major tourist drawcards. Only the devils, it seems, can’t shake off their old image.

The feeding rush-hour over, the devils in the enclosure come over to investigate us. Their faces bristle with whiskers, and in the dappled sunlight their jet-black fur has a henna-like sheen. I reach out with my hand and one of the animals approaches to sniff it like any dog would do. But the devil seems clumsy, its movements oddly stiff and uncoordinated and so its black wet nose bumps hard into my hand as if the animal has misjudged the distance. This, Androo explains, is the legacy of the devil ‘s fall from grace, an event that took place in the small hours of the Dreamtime.

According to Aboriginal legend, the devil, known in some areas as Terabah (the Nasty One) was once an agile predator, like a miniature black panther. Alas, true to its name, it kept annoying the bush spirits who complained about this to a creator being named Moine. Maine gave the devil several opportunities to repent, but harassment of the spirits continued. Finally, doing his block, Moine reshaped Terabah into today’s ungainly shaggy-tailed devil – he reddened its ears with a squashed native cherry, gave it an ugly voice, a quarrelsome disposition, and condemned it to a lifetime of scavenging carrion. This certainly would explain the devil’s clumsiness, its insatiable hunger and the sense of urgency with which it feeds. We must eat! Must eat all! Maine is watching!

The devils, Androo tells me, live such a furiously hyperactive life, running some 15 km every night in pursuit of food or mates, they simply burn themselves out. Few live longer than five years and many, like the animal sniffing my hand, suffer from bad backs and arthritis, their once-impressive teeth worn into stumps. Theirs is a life without subtleties, where even mating is a form of combat. It’s tough going from the moment they’re born. “The female gives birth to 20 young – each the size of grain of rice – and they immediately set off on a long crawl to the mother’s marsupial pouch,” Androo says. It’s an all-important race because in the pouch there are only four nipples.

This running start sets the pace for the rest of their lives. And it perhaps also explains the fact that, week into my trip, I’m yet to see a devil in the wild. Not that they’ve been avoiding me. One night, parked in a forest clearing, I’m woken up by a crunching noise under the camper. I jump out with a torch to find my hiking boots thoroughly chewed, with hardly a shoelace left. A branch of a nearby bush is still bobbing where the devil has bolted for cover. We must eat! Must eat all!

To see the devil in its natural state, Androo tells me, I should take advantage of their ravenous appetite, and book seat at one of three devil restaurants. He recommends one in Marrawah, near the north-west tip of Tasmania.

Main Course for Tasmanian devils

Marrawah is a small town perched on the edge of the ocean, 100 km west of Burnie. Frothing breakers roll in under the leaden sky, exploding against the rocky shore line and all vegetation is coiffed into a stiff Afro by a relentless, salt-blasting wind. Geoff King, a farmer-turned-devil-restaurateur, is a bear of a man and he welcomes me with a bone-jarring shoulder slap. Minutes later we’re bouncing along a rough track in his red ute. We stop at Geoff’s gate where we come across a dead wallaby which, he says, he pulled from his freezer and delivered there that morning. It has defrosted nicely – it smells ripe and when Geoff slashes open its belly, I find myself breathing through the collar of my fleece. Geoff ties a rope around the wallaby’s feet and loops it around the towbar and we’re off again, pulling the pungent bait across the rollercoaster paddocks. “He’s draggin’ well,” he says, catching a glimpse in the rear-vision mirror of the wallaby fish-tailing around corner. “No devil will resist this beauty.”

Geoff’s land has always been marginal for farming but it’s excellent for wildlife, and so he’s turned it into a habitat reserve, setting up an experimental ecotourism business – the devils’ restaurant. But it’s the devils that eat and people come to watch them. Seating is limited because he can only “set the table” five times a fortnight so not to habituate the animals to food hand-outs. The restaurant – an idea of Nick Mooney is an old fisherman’s cottage, painted white and cluttered with wicker craypots. Outside its panoramic window, Geoff fastens the battered wallaby to the ground with V-shaped wire pin and trains a soft light on the bait. We retire indoors and Geoff gives the viewing window a bit of a clean. It gets dark and Geoff lights a candle. The devils can’t be too far away.
 
Most days Geoff patrols the local byways to collect road-kill. This not only stocks up the freezer, but also keeps the devils off the road. And the turn-up of both the devils and the visitors has been good, much to the surprise of his neighbours, who’re puzzled by the fact that someone would pay good money just to see ‘vermin’. By the way, Geoff says matter-of-factly, the devils’ vermin status is another myth. The devils will, of course, hunt farm animals -anything they can get is fair game. Newly born lambs are particularly vulnerable, but they can be protected with proper enclosures. In reality, however, the devils can only hunt down sick or malnourished animals, and clean up the ones that are already dead. And because of their heavy-duty constitution and a witch’s brew of digestive enzymes, when they eat a sick animal, the devils practically terminate the diseases in their stomach. Thus, when you think about it, the Tassie devils are the best sanitary crew a farmer could hope for.

Earlier, Geoff had placed a microphone near the carcass, and suddenly a mantelpiece speaker roars into life with amplified crunching. The diners have arrived and I take a cautious peek through the window. One devil is crouched behind the bait, tugging at it and squinting into the light, another one warily skulks in the half-shadow. The animals are tense, ready to dart off at the slightest disturbance, but slowly the irresistible aroma of rotting meat reduces their fear and they begin to feed in earnest. 

They are true slaves to their stomachs. To see a devil eat is to behold a miracle that some thing so small can eat so much, so quickly. A devil can consume the equivalent of 40 per cent of its body weight in half an hour, Geoff says. That’s comparable to a human finishing off 25kg of steak at one sitting. The transfer of meat from the carcass into the devil is like sand flowing between the halves of an hourglass. Soon, one animal is so full it waddles off, almost dragging its stomach behind, but as it on cue, another one arrives, then another. The mike picks up the sound of the jaws grinding quickly and methodically like mincers, in the end all that remains is some chewed-up fur and Geoff’s wire fastener. We must eat! Must eat it all!

Devils: eat as if there’s no tomorrow

The devils eat as if there is no tomorrow, which, I reflect, is the strategy of survivor. It has served them well for they’ve endured a century-long bounty scheme that saw the end of their cousin, the thylacine. The devils were once so rare, they were thought to be extinct, but they bounced back despite all odds. I can see that Geoff is proud of the fact that with each visitor passing through his restaurant the myth of the evil beast is dispelled a little, freeing these timid animals from their undeserved reputation. Before midnight, just as our candle bums out, he switches off the spotlight. Darkness returns and we let the devils be.

Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 70 (Apr-June 2003)

MORE INFO
Tasmanian devils: The devil coast (feature from 2009)
Tassie devils get sanctuary in NSW