|Size:||20 to 31 in (51 to 79 cm)|
|Weight:||9 to 26 lbs (4 to 12 kg)|
|Population:||10,000 – 25,000 in the wild|
An unearthly cry rips through the air, like metal being torn apart by chainsaws. The blood curdling scream sounds as if someone is being eaten alive, or a violin string being stretched to breaking point. There is a pungent odour that smells like blood, meat and dark earth.
A devil shuffles into the light, its odd, bumbling gait reminiscent of a man with a clubfoot. In the twilight, the white markings on its dark fur almost glow, breaking up its profile against the darkening night. One of the devils, bolder than its fellows, clambers up onto a log, using its long black claws nimbly holding on. Almost at eye-level, it stares at us inquisitively, obvious intelligence in its eyes, wet nose sniffing in the air. Its body is powerfully compact, with slightly sloping haunches and a squat, square head and jaws built for crushing bone.
Round ears, flushed red with blood and excitement, give the devil a bearish look. It yawns at us, its wet pink mouth filled with long, sharp canines. Trembling whiskers clump together at the base of its jaw, and from the back of its head. The devil is smaller than expected – about the size of a small beagle, armed with far more ferocity and teeth. It wags its fat, short tail as it eyes us off.
I am at the Tasmanian Devils Sanctuary at Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania, and it’s feeding time. The sanctuary runs night feeding tours for the diurnal animals, and it is a privilege to be able to see the devils up close and personal. There is a large open compound where they run free, and after a briefing about these fascinating creatures, the keeper jumps the fence with dinner – an whole dead pademelon, or rock wallaby.
The screams escalate to an unbearable pitch as the devils try to scare each other off the carcass. They rip and tear into the food, howl and grunt at each other as they feed to try and establish dominance over the food. It is a running feast as one devil wins the prize and gallops with it through the enclosure, the other black furred, stocky legged devils in hot pursuit. In less than 15 minutes, the entire pademelon, bones, hide, claws, head and all, has disappeared into the bellies of the beasts. The only sounds are the crunching of bone and clacking of teeth.
Despite their fearsome appearance and scary screams, Tassie Devils aren’t the killers that original European settlers believed them to be. Mostly scavengers, they will hunt smaller prey and larger devils will even attempt wombat if they chance on it. Robust hunters with a complex social hierarchy, devils use screams and grunts as vocalisations to communicate to each other. Like most mammals in Australia, Tasmanian devils are marsupials, and like its distant relative the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, devils’ jaws can open to a 70 degree angle. When a devil yawns at you, he makes sure you can see all his teeth!
At the Devil Sanctuary, we had the opportunity to meet a devil in the flesh – the keeper brought in a shy female. Every devil has its own personality – some will claw, bite or scratch, others can be curious, though they do not seem to demonstrate affection to humans. The keeper gave us a few rules – no sudden movements, make yourself small, no loud voices.
The little Tassie devil had her head burrowed underneath her keepers arm as she was carried in. We had dimmed the lights and hushed our voices, but she stayed with her head and eyes covered while we tentatively reached out to stroke her surprisingly soft fur. Quite unlike the fearsome creature she would turn into only minutes later come feeding time! Which only demonstrates the range of personality that devils have.
Unfortunately, the Tasmanian devil is under severe threat from a facial tumour that is decimating populations. The tumour spreads quickly because of the devils’ limited gene pool, and their tendency to “mouth” each other off whenever they meet – cancer cells are then passed on directly from the skin of infected animals. Efforts to save the devils include breeding them in seclusion, and research into their immune system. The Sanctuary at Cradle Mountain is doing their bit by saving orphaned devils and contributing to worldwide research.
The Tasmanian devil is a state icon, beloved of Looney Tunes fans and incredibly and surprisingly cute in real life (despite the sharp teeth and sharper screams!). If you find yourself at Cradle Mountain, make it a point to drop by to learn about these fascinating, misunderstood creatures – your support for the Sanctuary contributes to helping save them.
This post was inspired by The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge. This week’s brief was to “to practice your powers of observation. Take any person, place, or event, and write three paragraphs describing your subject in great detail.” I’ve chosen the Tasmanian devil as my subject, and hope I’ve brought him to life for you!