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Drumming up support for Tasmania's unsexy beast

Wildlife officials in Australia work on a PR makeover for the reviled Tasmanian devil, which faces extinction from a rare infectious cancer.

March 27, 2011|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • Greg Irons, director of the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, is a passionate advocate for Tasmanian devils. He's raising 16 devils in quarantine that are free of the fatal Devil facial tumor disease.
Greg Irons, director of the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, is a passionate… (Julie Cart, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Hobart, Australia — It would appear to be one heck of a public relations challenge: Persuade the Australian public to care about a seldom-seen animal the size of a cocker spaniel, beady-eyed, standoffish and fond of displaying a mouthful of pointy teeth. Picture a skunk, with the jaws of an alligator and the charm of a weasel.

From a marketing standpoint, the Tasmanian devil is no koala.

But the pugnacious carnivore needs help. Scientists across Australia are working to untangle the genetic puzzle behind a fatal disease decimating the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. The affliction is straight out of a sci-fi movie: Tumors sprout around the devil's mouth, quickly morphing into bulbous red pustules that eventually take over the animal's entire face, leaving it unable to eat or drink.

Alarmed by the threat to a species already on the brink of extinction, wildlife biologists here began tracking the disease 15 years ago. Early on, they identified how it spread: through facial bites when devils fight or mate. The disease had all the characteristics of a virus. But last year geneticists made a sobering discovery. Devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD, was no virus, but a highly infectious cancer — one of only three communicable cancers known to medicine.

That breakthrough piqued the interest of scientists. Though researchers say it is unlikely that humans could become infected with DFTD, the knowledge gleaned in research across Australia could prove invaluable should an infectious cancer appear among people.

The name Tasmanian devil conjures up images of the Looney Tunes character, a slightly daft and clumsy creature that does little more than whirl and slobber. Yet, in ways that surprise even themselves, Australians are rallying around this nasty, screeching beast that once was the most reviled animal in the country. There are foods and wines branded with the devil's likeness; bars and coffee shop signs feature caricatures of a snarling devil, as does the official logo of the Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service. Schoolchildren study the creature and a visit to a devil sanctuary is a standard day trip for cruise ship passengers disembarking in Hobart.

Even if relatively few Australians have taken the time to see a devil at a zoo, and even fewer have spied one in the bush, they are getting the message: It may be a devil, but it's our devil. They're "a little Aussie fighter," suggested Kathy Belov, a molecular geneticist at the University of Sydney working to save the marsupial.

"There's something really adorable about little devils," she said.

There's also this. Wildlife stewards in Australia's island state of Tasmania have at least one biological crime to atone for: Conservationists worldwide haven't forgiven officials here for allowing the world's last remaining thylacine — the Tasmanian tiger — to die in a concrete cell in Hobart Zoo in 1936.

Wildlife officials have created a "Devil Ark," dispatching small groups of uninfected devils to zoos and sanctuaries around the state and mainland to establish an insurance population and stave off extinction. Researchers believe that without this massive intervention, wild devils could be gone in five years. Already, 90% of the known Tasmanian devil population is lost.

"No one, politicians to scientists, wants to lose the devil on their watch," Belov said. "Everyone is really desperate to make sure it doesn't happen."

::

Greg Irons strode briskly past the low-walled enclosures at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, trailing a ragtag parade: Grandpa, the elderly kangaroo he picked up on the way out of the front office, Mavis the plump wombat, who insisted on being carried, and young Sam, here with his father to get a close look at a real Tasmanian devil.

"Wicked! That's awesome," the boy yelled, watching four devils amble around their pen. "Dad! Get a picture!"

Irons, director of the wildlife sanctuary carved into a hillside north of Hobart, is raising 16 devils in quarantine free from cancer. The goal is to prepare them to become part of Australia's insurance population, living in wildlife sanctuaries. Bonorong is one of the few facilities in the country where devils can be observed up close.

The affable Irons, 27, may be the devil's most ardent champion. He laughed as he watched four pudgy pups — Donny, Pee Wee, Millie and Chopper — chase one another, and described their individual personalities. As the devils clambered over him, occasionally nibbling on his fingertips, Irons assured that his charges were misunderstood.

"Their so-called hunting skills? Their eyesight goes to about 4 or 5 feet," he said. "Agility? They run like they're injured." Their top speed is about 9 mph.

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