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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Radio Expeditions: Tasmanian Devil

Air Date: Week of February 25, 2000

Alex Chadwick traveled to Tasmania to learn the strange and interesting truths of this creature. This report was originally produced for NPR’s Morning Edition and broadcast as part of the National Geographic “Radio Expeditions” series.

Transcript

CURWOOD: You may know the Warner Brothers cartoon character Taz, based on the Tasmanian devil. But as NPR's Alex Chadwick reports, the truth is far more interesting and stranger than the Hollywood version. He prepared this series of vignettes.

(A Tasmanian devil growls)

CHADWICK: Part one: the creature and its place. From the London Illustrated News of 1861.

MAN: (Reading) The Tasmanian devil. The Uzran Desiur belongs to the group of carnivorous marsupials and is remarkable for its savage and untamable disposition, whence it has acquired from the settlers in Tasmania the name of "the devil." In a state of confinement they appear to be untamably savage, biting severely and uttering at the same time a low, yelling growl.

CHADWICK: That's actually what appealed to our colleague David Dubalay, the National Geographic photographer, on Tasmania, south of Australia, a couple of months ago.

DUBALAY: It's afternoon, and the sun is just beginning to touch the tops of the cliffs. It's very thick forest up here. We are in a wilderness beyond a wilderness. Tasmania sometimes can be almost dreamlike.

CHADWICK: David traveled to a rural part of the island, where Carolyn and John Hamilton run a local wildlife center.

(Wind, bird song)

HAMILTON: I've been living in the area for nearly 20 years now, and am totally overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. We have the tallest cliffs around the Australian coastline here. Magnificent walking trails. It's just a superb place to live. And best of all, there are very few people who live here. So it's a pretty precious place. It's my place on the planet.

CHADWICK: The Hamilton Center rescues all sorts of orphaned or injured creatures: owls, eagles, and the legendary Tasmanian devil.
Part two: in which David Dubalay observes breakfast for a group of Tasmanian devils, provided by Carolyn Hamilton.

(Growling)

C. HAMILTON: Well, we'll just go and feed the females. But if you're going to get in with them, you'll have to be very aware, because they're just a bit more bitchy than the males. These ones are okay, but getting in with the females you have to be very careful and watch what you're doing.

(Growling increases)

CHADWICK: Field notes from Tasmania. The devils sound bigger than they are. They're about the size of large beagles with short, shiny coats of black hair, long tails, and practically no neck. Instead, the jaws seem to start where the shoulders end.

(Tasmanian devils munch)

CHADWICK: David Dubalay watches in amazement as several of the devils are devouring a dead wallaby. That's an animal like a small kangaroo.

DUBALAY: Fur, muscle, bone, everything is going down, disappearing. Nothing is left.

(Excited growling)

C. HAMILTON: I always love to tell people that we are not a zoo or a zoo-style animal park. We're actually a rescue center.

CHADWICK: Part three: in which David Dubalay interviews Carolyn Hamilton about the Tasmanian Devil Center and its inhabitants.

C. HAMILTON: Our main focus is on raising, rehabilitating, and releasing native animals back into the wild.

DUBALAY: People all over the world imagine that the Tasmanian devil looks very much like the Warner Brothers cartoon Taz -- the guy who makes whirling sounds and eats everything. And when they see them for the first time, how do they react?

C. HAMILTON: People are generally shocked to find out that firstly, he's black, he walks on four legs, he's a marsupial like a wallaby or a kangaroo. Some people just think he's a cartoon character that doesn't even exist.

DUBALAY: Where does the devil part come in?

C. HAMILTON: Sometimes when it stands up on its hind legs, balancing with its tail, and the sun is behind it glowing through their red ears and the black collar, I think it really does look a bit like a devil. But also I think its nature is pretty devilish as well. It's not a friendly animal. I always say that a devil gets out of bed on the wrong side every morning, and every day is a bad day. They are so cranky.

DUBALAY: Do you like them?

C. HAMILTON: My immediate reaction is to say no, I don't like them. But having said that, I would have to say I think they are the most curious animal that is alive today.

CHADWICK: We do many stories about various animals and birds and fish that are threatened with extinction. The Tasmanian devil, most definitely, is not.

(Traffic. A horn beeps)

CHADWICK: Part four: David Dubalay explores the circumstances that have the devils thriving. And bear in mind that David is a color photographer.

DUBALAY: It's night now, and we're driving to a place called Pirate's Point. The twin headlights of the automobile put kind of weak pools in front of the car. The white line in the road has all but disappeared. And the road, plunging through this night, for the animals in the bush is like an arena of death.

CHADWICK: An arena of death? He means there's a lot of roadkill.

DUBALAY: Tasmanian devils are opportunistic feeders, and this is an opportunity. This road is a dining table for them.

CHADWICK: Because of roadkill, wildlife experts think there actually are many more devils now than there were before roads and cars. The Devil Center uses mostly roadkill to feed the devils it cares for. Their diet is principally the wallabies -- like the devils, marsupials. That just means animals that raise their young in pouches.
Part five: John Hamilton guides some tourists visiting the center.

(Footfalls)

J. HAMILTON: My name is John Hamilton. Welcome, I should say. We'll be bringing out Tasmanian devils in a moment.

(Tasmanian devil growls)

J. HAMILTON: You can see that these have obviously got extremely strong jaws. And a great characteristic of the devil is its bone-crushing ability. We understand that the devil possibly has the strongest jaws of any creature that lives on land.

(More growls)

J. HAMILTON: Aah, stop it. And if it hasn't fed for quite a while, the Tasmanian devil will eat whatever it can. It really stuffs itself. And it has the ability to overeat one third of its body weight, and that's pretty much the same as the waiter coming to you in a steak bar and saying, "Sir, would you like a 50- or 60-pound steak for dinner tonight?"

CHADWICK: Part six, and final: The kitchen of the 100-year-old country house on the Devil Center property. John and Carolyn Hamilton.

(Crickets)

J. HAMILTON: We often leave the door open during the summer. And the sounds of the animals in the park really do carry. We can hear the master owls chattering [makes chattering sounds].

C. HAMILTON: And the owls. [Both make whooping sounds]

J. HAMILTON: And also the devils growling and the possums chattering. It's wonderful, actually, to think that nature's out there, and somehow that quite a few of these animals have survived certainly due to our efforts. I think quite a few people think we're extraordinary. "How are those devils going?" is the question we'll be asked by people because we're just about the only people in Tasmania, perhaps the world, who have lived with Tasmanian devils for so long. And not everybody thinks we're all together. Some people think it's a bit of a silly thing for us to be doing, but we don't.

CHADWICK: That radio expedition, with the National Geographic Society's David Dubalay, was produced by Carolyn Jensen and recorded by Les Gilbert of Majion Design Studios in Melbourne, Australia.

(A Tasmanian devil growls)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick.

CURWOOD: Our story on the Tasmanian devil was produced for NPR's Morning Edition and originally broadcast as part of the National Geographic Radio Expedition series.

 

 

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