I would like you to meet Tangle
Just like hair and bridesmaids dresses, the eighties did not treat dingoes well. I don't think there is an Australian above twenty that does not immediately think of the Lindy Chamberlain story when dingoes are mentioned- it was such a huge public case that lasted 32 years and spawned three films (and an opera!). The 2012 inquest ruled that a dingo had been responsible for the death of baby Azaria using figures from dingo attacks on Fraser Island as part of the evidence. Just two weeks ago, dingoes again made news headlines after attacking a young man on Fraser Island who ventured outside by himself at night.
Does this mean dingoes are dangerous?
You probably have more chance of being seriously injured by your family dog (or cat). Dingoes are naturally timid animals. In the case of the Fraser Island dingoes, humans have interfered with their environment, building a resort in the middle of a national park. When tourists don't obey the rules and feed the dingoes, this encourages interaction with people and that is when the problems occur.
The dingo is an Australian native animal. Recent geological and DNA evidence suggests the species has been on the Australian continent for up to 28,000 years. It is an endangered species, yet has a classification of "pest" or "vermin" by some state governments. These same governments authorise baiting of 'wild dogs' with the horrifically cruel and indiscriminate poison 1080 (banned in a number of countries). These were just some of the reasons that prompted Lyn and Peter Watson to establish The Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre. Set on 40 acres near Gisborne, just outside Melbourne, the centre is an opportunity to learn about and interact with these fascinating animals.
There are a lot of myths about dingoes and Lyn and Peter are committed to dispelling them. They have been working with dingoes for over twenty years and provide a breeding program that supplies puppies to zoos and wildlife centres across Australia. Recently a team from Yale University have been studying their dingoes as part of a larger research project on the effect of domestication on animals. Dingoes were recognised as a separate species in March this year, they appear not to have evolved from wolves as previously thought, but from a common ancestor. They are truly wild animals, with an inbuilt prey drive, one breeding cycle per year and an inability to be domesticated. This recent species classification may be the key to them being listed as a protected species.
When you visit the Dingo Discovery Centre, Lyn explains appropriate dingo etiquette and warns that they are quite timid so not to rush or crowd them. We were seated, before the beautiful Tangle was led out to meet us. Tangle is one year old and has been well-socialised for demonstration purposes.
Lyn demonstrated some of the remarkable traits of dingoes, they:
are double jointed;
can rotate their head backwards as if on a hinge;
have extraordinary peripheral vision; when held upside down they relax like a cat so as to avoid injury if they fall;
have a ribcage that extends much further than a dogs, protecting vital organ,s and fur covers the belly providing warmth and insulation;
have no scent, so that the only time they can be tracked is if they choose to leave scent by urinating, usually to reunite with their mate;
mate for life;
have ears like fur-lined satellite dishes that can hear everything, including your heart beat and they can tell if you have a heart problem- spooky.
Tangle was trained, he could sit and drop. He allowed us to pat him but didn't really seek it like a dog would. Dingoes bond with their humans and it was clear Tangle would do anything for Lyn or Lyn (the volunteer in the picture above) but on his own terms. There was something other-worldly about him. He was constantly alert, listening and reacting to things we couldn't hear.
Then we met the puppies
The pups were gorgeous but I found myself drawn back to the majesty of the adults. We walked back along the adult enclosures where breeding pairs share a pen (less fighting that way). Lyn explained that the pack dynamics are still very much maintained in captivity, pointing out one of the young males who lost his ear to Teddy, the alpha male, after getting a bit cocky during mating season. Dingoes bred at the centre are appropriately socialised to learn pack behaviour. The young fellow in question joined the centre as a 'rescue' after being privately reared.
This isn't a great photo but I included it to show the different colours. We joked about this guy being a Kelpi-dingo but the dingos at the centre are DNA-tested purebreds. The idea that all dingoes are sandy-coloured has led to many of these other colours being killed- people assumed that they were hybridised with domestic dogs. They also come in darker variations of the yellow/sandy colour and white as you can see from the puppy pictures.
Visiting the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre was a fantastic experience. I learnt so much about these extraordinary creatures and to be honest, became quite besotted with them. The puppies are only around for a few weeks a year in winter but you can visit (by appointment) year-round. I can see why people interacting with wild dingoes is a problem. They are beautiful creatures and to an untrained eye look so much like a domestic dog. However if you saw a tiger or a wolf in the wild would you try to feed it? Or get close enough to take a selfie with it? We need to give the same respect to dingoes in order to ensure they have a future.
Lyn and Peter have invested a huge amount of money into educating people about and protecting the dingoes. They have plans to start breeding populations for controlled release back into the wild. If you would like to help them continue their work you can make a tax deductible donation to the centre or even sponsor a dingo for $1 a day, contributing to food and veterinary care. They also ask that you write to the federal and state ministers for the environment, asking for dingos to be recognised as a unique and protected species and to cease 1080 and related toxic baiting.