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Dingo Inspires Love, Hate and Controversy

Some Aussies see the canines as pets, others as pests. Interbreeding threatens the species.

October 19, 2003|Peter O'Connor | Associated Press Writer

CANBERRA, Australia — Aborigines had dingoes as companions for thousands of years, but modern Australians are debating whether these unique wild dogs should be kept as household pets.

After all, the dingoes' role with the Aborigines was on hunting expeditions, and experts fear today's owners are at risk of attack as dingoes grow older, and their aggressive ancient instincts take over.

They also worry that widespread domestication and mixing genes with other dogs might hasten the extinction of a pure breed that, until recently, was hunted mercilessly by white settlers as a predator of ranch animals.

"As pups they are very adorable, fluffy little balls. But five months later you've got something else -- you've got the devil on your hands," said Barrie Oakman, president of the Australian Dingo Conservation Assn.

Oakman has convinced authorities in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, to review a recent law that classified dingoes as suitable pets. The law was meant to protect the breed, but Oakman has grave reservations and wants it reversed.

The dingo, a primitive canine species thought to be an ancient link between Asian domestic dogs and the Indian wolf, is believed to have been brought to Australia by seafarers about 5,000 years ago.

A 1998 move to reclassify them, from pests to pets, was intended to save them from extinction by removing an obligation to shoot the animals on sight.

Experts say it is virtually impossible to count how many dingoes are currently in Australia. But tests suggest that most of the dogs regarded as dingoes are up to 80% hybrid, and that there are few with pure dingo blood.

It was the dingo's reputation for attacking livestock -- not humans -- that initially earned them the shoot-on-sight sentence.

The dogs have been blamed for only two human fatalities in recent memory.

A 10-week-old girl, Azaria Chamberlain, was killed by a dingo in 1980 at a campsite near Uluru, or Ayers Rock, in Australia's Outback. Azaria's mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was initially convicted of murdering her daughter -- whose body was never found -- but the conviction was overturned after tests confirmed a dingo was responsible.

The case divided the nation. "The Dingo Did It" and "The Dingo Is Innocent," were common bumper stickers during the 1980s, and the story was made into the 1988 movie "A Cry in the Dark," starring Meryl Streep.

Authorities shot dozens of dingoes in 2001 on the popular tourist destination of Fraser Island, off Australia's east coast, after a dingo pack fatally mauled a 9-year-old boy on vacation with his family.

Standing just 24 inches at the shoulder and weighing up to 44 pounds, the dingo flourished in Australia. Next to crocodiles, it became the continent's largest predator and a camp companion for Aborigines. But the arrival of Europeans, in 1788, proved disastrous.

"The dingo is in danger of extinction in the wild," said Dr. Alan Wilton, a biochemist from the University of New South Wales who has pioneered DNA testing of the animals in a bid to preserve pure strains.

"The dingo is an agricultural pest, so farmers want them destroyed," he said, adding that the vast majority of livestock lost to dogs were killed by hybrid animals, not pure dingoes.

"There are small pockets of pure dingoes left in some areas, but they are dwindling," Wilton added.

Oakman, who breeds dingoes for scientific research and conservation, says allowing humans to keep dingoes as pets is dangerous.

"The dingo is a predator, a wild animal. Once they reach maturity they become difficult to handle and usually end up escaping, and that's where the problems begin," he said.

In a report to a parliamentary committee, the New South Wales Bureau of Rural Sciences said keeping dingoes as pets on the fringes of cities and in semi-rural areas was accelerating the decline of purebred animals.

Dingoes that have lived in a domestic situation are "more likely to crossbreed with domestic dogs than wild-bred dingoes. Many such hybrids are rejected by owners or stray into the bush, where they may infiltrate wild dingo society and breed with pure dingoes," the bureau said.

Wilton said Fraser Island was one of the few places where a large number of pure dingoes could still be found because they rarely encountered domestic dogs. Without similar conservation zones, the future of the animal is dim, he said.

Oakman said pure dingoes in the wild were shy and posed virtually no threat to humans. He said he was confident New South Wales lawmakers would ban their use as pets, and take new steps to protect them when the state government law review reports its findings next year.

Even so, other state governments around Australia must also set up special conservation areas if the pure strain of dingo is to be preserved, he said.

"If that doesn't happen, I see no future at all beyond the next 30 years -- probably less than that -- and in New South Wales, probably less than 10," Oakman said.

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