The Last of Many Breeds – by Nick Hunt

Lily McInnes remembers the day when Donald James Eiger arrived at the zoo – top-hatted, tweed-suited, swinging his cane – and purchased the last of the thylacines for the sum of forty pounds. The beast had been caught in the Florentine Valley three years previously, and had spent its time in captivity pacing and yawning, yawning and pacing, occasionally making a futile leap at the bars and rebounding off them. The zookeepers hated it. It made the other animals nervous, they said – put them off their feed. Visitors steered away from it, preferring the monkeys and the bears, exotic things from foreign lands, not this local pestilence. You wouldn’t pay to see rabid dogs or rats exhibited in a cage, so why give money for a sight like that? Yawning and pacing, pacing and yawning, grinning its sheep-murdering grin. The last of its kind, it would never breed – would never produce lucrative offspring to recompense the zoo for the cost of its sustenance and upkeep. All it did in captivity was what it had done in its habitat – consume a small fortune in meat at the tax-payer’s expense. If Mr Eiger hadn’t made his offer they’d probably have put the thing down, and flung the carcass in the trash with the zoo’s other scrapings.

No-one knew why he wanted it, but no-one knew why Mr Eiger did most of the things he did. A trim, skinny man of advanced years, who dressed like a dandy but never was known to frequent any restaurant, dinner or dance, he was sighted now and then around town, engaged in unknowable business. His money was made in timber, they said – blackwood, blue gum, Huon pine – though some believed he also had dealings with coal, bauxite, gold. He was rumoured to be a mad millionaire, but both his madness and his millions were probably exaggerated. He was certainly rich and strange, and that was enough for Hobart.

Lily, nine years old, watched him arrive in a taxicab and shake begloved hands with the zoo’s director. The two men advanced to the thylacine’s cage and spent twenty minutes smoking cigars, conversing in low, amenable tones, while the beast stalked back and forwards. Then the head keeper – Lily’s father – entered the cage with a bucket of meat which he liberally slopped upon the floor, and while the thylacine’s jaws were engaged bagged its head, collared its neck, muzzled its mouth, strapped its legs and fastened it to a length of chain, the end of which he presented to Mr Eiger with a flourish. Three other men half-dragged, half-carried the struggling thing to the taxicab, where it was pinned against the floor by Simon, Mr Eiger’s butler.

‘They christened it Benjamin, by the way,’ said the zoo’s director, again shaking hands. An envelope had been exchanged. ‘That’s what the papers chose.’

But Mr Eiger shook his head. ‘A thing like that needs no name.’

The taxicab left, and Lily watched. It was a blue summer day. She looked back at the empty cage, at her father sweeping up the meat. He turned his head and met her eye. ‘No tears now,’ he said.

***

There were different stories told. The house was high upon the hill, overlooking the city and the bay, and not many visitors went to it – but still, the stories travelled. People said it was loose inside the house, that he permitted it to prowl, that it had made a stinking nest in the corner of Simon’s bedroom. That it had eaten several cats. That Mr Eiger had shot the cats. That constables had visited. That delivery men refused to visit. That Genevieve Eiger, his delicate and perennially ailing English wife, had suffered from ‘nervous fits’ of some kind and been taken to the hospital. That she might be away for some time. That the servants had departed with her.

There were other stories too. That he was trying to breed the thing. That bitches in heat – dingos, strays – had been brought to the house in recent months and left in a room with the thylacine, but the only thing that remained the next day was bones and scraps of fur.  Some said he had taught the brute some tricks – it would yawn on demand when he said ‘sleep tight’, or fall with its belly in the air when he made a pistol sound. Others believed he had taken its teeth. That he beat it with a bamboo cane, starved it in an airless box, that his ambition was to break its spirit as one breaks a horse’s. A gardener from the house next door swore he heard its yowls at night, rasps of fury, screams of pain – and afterwards, the quieter noise of Mr Eiger weeping.

It was strictly not allowed but Lily climbed the hill one day, a half-hour walk from school, into the rich people’s neighbourhood, and spied through the iron gate. She could see the big house with its pillars and porch, its gardens dark with Tasmanian oak, but she couldn’t see the beast. She wondered if it was dead somehow. If Mr Eiger had punished too far. Perhaps he had stuffed it, or stretched its tiger-striped skin before his fire.

She stared through the gate for a long while hoping for the truth to come, but no sound, no sign, no shadow came from behind the blank square windows. She walked to the zoo to meet her dad, fibbing that school had kept her late. She passed the thylacine’s old cage. An ocelot was there now.

***

And then there were older tales. Tales from before Lily’s time. Tales from before Mr Eiger’s time, if you counted the years back, but tales that Lily nevertheless believed were connected, somehow. She pictured him as a younger man, uniformed, slouch-hatted, rifle snapped in the crook of his arm, on horseback. On a moonless night. The Black War was long since won but some of the tribes had escaped the Line and continued to live by stealing sheep, haunting lonely stations. Punitive raids on recalcitrant blacks happened in the dead of night, and when they fled their camp fires the raiding squads pursued for days – often using native trackers tamed by money, whisky, church – picking them off with long-range shots from higher ground, from ridges. Like shooting wallabies or cats. This work was rewarded. The ones not shot were rounded up, chained from neck to neck to neck, and marched in dragging, dusty lines to Flinders Island, Oyster Cove, where they were taught to wear clothes and live in proper houses. People crowded their doors to watch as the captured blacks paraded past – naked legs, ragged beards, scowling, glistening like apes – an obstacle to settlement, a taint, a dying breed.

Lily had never seen a black. She wanted to, and feared to. Sometimes when she closed her eyes she saw them like a picture show, heads bagged, long limbs chained, in moving lines across the earth. She was too young to remember that. But when she stood at the thylacine’s cage, which contained no thylacine, somehow she remembered.

***

Then the territory was clear, the settlement was won. Frontier families slept without fear of a waddy staving in the door, a spear crashing through the wall. It was a new century. The Irish came, the Cockneys came, the Welsh came, the Germans came. Sealers, whalers, timber-men. Pastures for a million sheep. Rare earth metals, bauxite, gold. The forests splintered to the crash of Huon pine and myrtle.

***

Sheep were found with their throats ripped out. Ribcages that buzzed with flies. Something else was out there now. The farmers checked their guns again. New rewards were offered.

***

A five pound bounty for a black. One pound for a thylacine. Demand outstripped supply.

***

Three years went by, and Lily grew. Her dad retired from the zoo – he suffered from arthritic joints – and found work on the trams instead. The work was less demanding, and you didn’t catch fleas from trams. Hobart’s streets were widened, paved. Elegant parks were laid, with eucalyptus rustling. There were streetlights and hotels, more automobiles, fewer horses. Lily’s older sister Ruth married, moved to New South Wales. Her brother Sam enlisted in the Royal Tasmania Regiment and was sent to Europe to fight. Another war was starting.

Genevieve Eiger died and the rich people went to her funeral, though most had never been acquainted. Mr Eiger’s beard turned white. He was seldom seen in town. People called him a ‘recluse’ and Lily didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded coarse and strange. A bit like ‘loon’. A bit like ‘loose’. There were rumours of a fight – that Mr Eiger, mindless drunk, had flung Simon’s clothes and books from a top-floor window in a thunderstorm, or even attacked him with his cane. Reluctantly, so they said, the butler packed his bags.

Sometimes she thought of the thylacine. It was distant now. She had a picture in her mind, but she didn’t know if it was right. A striped backside, a cavernous grin, pointed ears like a dog’s – but other than that its distinctions blurred, its features ran together.

No-one talked about it now. Perhaps it had only been a silly story told at parties.

***

Two more years. The food got less. Lily watched the troops parade in Macquarie Street, hung with flags – uniformed, slouch-hatted, with rifles snapped in the crooks of their arms. The men looked strong and brave and clean. The air raid sirens yowled at night. The Japanese were in Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, Singapore. Perhaps the Dutch East Indies next. After that, Australia. Lily had never seen a Jap. She wanted to, and feared to. Now when she closed her eyes she saw them, at great distances – she picked them off one by one from horseback in her mind.

***

In the middle of that war, Mr Eiger left the house. Lily wasn’t there to see – she learned the legends later.

It was dawn, and he rode a white mare. His silk top hat was at a tilt. He carried a rifle on his back, a waddy in his hand.

They said the beast stalked at his side, or strained ahead on a length of chain. That its flanks flashed in the light – orange black, orange black. That its sheep-destroying teeth gleamed in its yawning skull.

Man, horse and beast passed quickly through the suburbs of the rich and were glimpsed from outlying farms making their way towards the bush. They disappeared, people said, in the woods beyond Mount Wellington. A farmer named Eli Church claimed to have seen them passing by, pausing at a billabong. The horse ate grass, the man drank wine and the beast consumed red chunks of meat, tossed from a battered leather bag. The meat did not last long.

The constables knocked at the big house, and received no answer. Having forced the door they searched the rooms and reported that nothing was amiss, not a teaspoon out of place. The fireplace was swept and stacked. The marble floors were freshly mopped. Just empty rooms and an open cage – but even that was clean and scrubbed. No clues, just an absence.

***

Lily McInnes is an old woman now, and she retells the stories. Her grandchildren have heard her talk of bunyips, yowies, flightless birds, forgotten tribes of wild men, though these are only fairytales. But sometimes she tells about the man who might be glimpsed on moonless nights, backcountry, deep within the bush. They do not like this tale so much, but she tells it anyway. Lily changes as she talks. He slaughters sheep, he catches cats. Mad-eyed, he swings a bamboo cane. With tiger stripes across his skin. Upon his head a crown of jaws, hinged open in an endless yawn. No bounty will bring this one in. He is the last of many breeds. The farmers say they’ll shoot on sight, until his extirpation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banged up – a short story by Caroline Hunt

It was a cat B prison. He was in C block. I’ll call him Dave, but that wasn’t his name. He was inside for twelve years, so he must have done something serious.

 

“Twelve do six miss if I keep out of trouble.”

 

Nobody came to visit him so he requested an OPV – a prison visitor. I went there once a week. I sat in his cell on level 4.  Always next to the open door, those were my security instructions.  The prison officer on the corridor checked us at intervals

 

“Alright Dave?”

Or

“OK Miss?”

 

We talked about his favourite food, brands of trainers, and different ways to hang yourself. Once he tried to con me.

“You’re a bit of an environmentalist aren’t you miss?”

“Yes I am.”

“My brother on the outside’s starting an environmental magazine.”

“Oh that’s good.”

“Fancy contributing?”

“How do I do that?”

“We could set up a regular subscription if you give me your bank details.”

I gave him a look.

He didn’t ask again.

 

The last thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, was trapped in 1933. They called him Benjamin. He wasn’t a tiger, he was a carnivorous marsupial. He had a dense soft yellow brown coat striated by stripes down his back and tail, a large blunt head out of proportion to his body, and short rounded ears. Hobart Zoo was his nick. He was inside for for life, if you could call it that.  He only survived three years.

 

Dave always made me a cup of tea. He kept the milk on the window sill to stop it going off.  He wasn’t lucky enough to get prison work in the pot pourri factory and education had been cut for of lack of funds, so he was banged up in his cell twenty-three hours a day. There was an hour for evening association when he could get a shower and mix with the inmates on the wing.  He spent the other twenty-three pacing his cell or staring at the walls. On his block there were incidents of self-harm, mental illness and suicide.

 

Benjamin was a lifer, sentenced for thieving sheep, though he wasn’t to know it was a crime. No association for him. He was a top predator. I watched the film footage of him pacing his cell. It was about the same size as Dave’s. With obsessive pathetic hope he searched for escape. He scented the air, he gauged the spaces between the bars of his cage, he checked the walls, he yawned in tension. Then he started again, up and down, never resting, never giving up.

 

When Dave couldn’t sleep he imagined he was walking round Upton Lovell, the village he came from.

 

“You turn right off the A36 just after the Knook Army camp and keep going down the hill past a few cottages till you get to the Prince Leopold.  I nip in there for an hour – have a couple of pints, chat to my mates – I can see it like I was in it miss.  If you follow the road left and go over the level crossing you come to a housing estate. That’s where my house is. I walk past it every night”

 

When Benjamin slept I hope he dreamed and his dreams gave him the escape he searched for. That in his mind he was able to run again in the dense forests, shelter in his nests of bark and ferns, and revisit his pups in their lair high up in the caves where they waited for his yip yap bark when he returned with his criminal booty of a farmer’s sheep.

 

“There’s a path through the graveyard by the church. Cross the bridge over the River Wylie and you can walk in the water meadows on the other side. There’s all butterflies and flowers and cattle grazing.  You’d like it there, you being an environmentalist – beautiful it is miss.”

 

The next time I reported in at the gate he’d gone.

“Prisoner DD4328?”

“Transferred last night.”

I felt a sense of loss.

“Where to?”

“Can’t tell you that miss.”

 

Benjamin died of neglect, shut out of his shelter with no escape from the freezing nights and the scorching days. His body was carelessly flung on a scrap heap. The thylacine species was officially declared extinct in 1982. Official protection for his species was offered fifty-nine days before Benjamin died in captivity.  His relations were found in fossil form.  His ancestors were painted as rock art 40,000 years ago. He was the last to leave.  His kind is lost forever by a random act of carelessness.

 

There have been reports of an occasional sighting.   A cry heard in the hills at dusk, a dog-like beast caught in a car’s headlights, but they remain unconfirmed.

Image: Thylacine Ghost VII (Skeleton) by Gabbee Stolp

Extinction Symbol

Why create a symbol for extinction? An interview with the designer:

“As you may have already heard by now, a mass extinction of plant and animal species is currently underway which is being caused by human activity. It was felt that the realm of visual culture hadn’t yet responded adequately to this situation, and so the extinction symbol was created as a way to distill a complex concept into an easily recognisable graphic image which transcends language differences and can be quickly and easily replicated by anybody in a range of mediums and regardless of artistic ability. The circle represents the planet, and the hourglass indicates that time is rapidly running out for many species, including humans.

“This is a decentralised, strictly non-commercial participatory project that people can use to express their concerns about the extinction crisis. The aim is to raise awareness and act as a continual reminder to people who see it as they move around the city that their actions at any given moment could potentially have far-reaching effects. Thus it serves as a visual confrontation/admonishment to those who indulge in the hyper-consumerist lifestyle and who are presently estranged or insulated from the consequences of this, due to living in almost entirely artificial urban environments. The very presence of the symbol in public space promotes a cultural shift away from the current destructive paradigm, while also signalling an increasingly emergent resistance movement. Hopefully by having the message constantly reinforced, it becomes impossible to ignore.

“By autonomously creating a physical manifestation of the symbol, a person automatically becomes a member of the extinction symbol collective, and in the process states their refusal to remain a passive bystander. Curiosity is stimulated in those who randomly come across the symbol and might initially be unaware of the meaning behind it, potentially leading to further investigation and exploration of the issues involved. Examples of the symbol seen in public are shared via various social media channels, and a space for discourse opened up. On an individual level, people taking part in the project have reported that creating the symbol can help to lessen the feelings of powerlessness and alienation endemic to techno-industrial society.

“Your participation is welcomed and encouraged. Please create the symbol everywhere you can.”

The symbol can be downloaded freely from http://www.extinctionsymbol.info/

Benjamin – a short story by Matthew Stanfield

Loopus from katy shepherd on Vimeo.

“Loopus’ film shared with permission from Katy Shepherd.

Hobart had been a disappointment to David Fleay. He had come to Tasmania from the mainland with high hopes and exceptional credentials for a man still three years shy of thirty. The Tasmanian Museum had been his first port of call: a schizophrenic sort of a place to look at, French chateau from the front, prison block from the back. Fitting for Tasmania, David had thought on his way in. Would that I had been, he had thought on his way out. The Directorship of the Tasmanian Museum, a post which he had so coveted, was denied him by the Museum Board on account of his youth.

In truth the Directorship had only ever been a means to an end. For most mainlanders Tasmania was an afterthought; for David it was an obsession. In the wake of his rejection he had found himself inconsolable. It should have been me, it had to be me. This is what I was born for.

All was not entirely lost though – a bastard sort of an opportunity yet remained to Fleay. And so he found himself on the nineteenth of December 1933, trudging up a scrubby hill in the summer heat to visit a zoo. He carried the ungainly weight of two cameras but he scarcely minded. Within the wrought iron boundary fence of Hobart Zoo, David slowed his pace. He turned each corner carefully, wanting time to prepare himself. His heart was pounding as he passed the lion terraces and the polar bear’s pond. He sidestepped the translucent bulk of an acrid-smelling bird cage, feeling every hair on his body rise. There it was, all at once. It was almost too much.

Even behind six-foot-high walls of windblown chicken wire, Fleay realised that the old bushmen’s tales he had heard were true. I sense it, I feel it within its cage. The Thylacine.

David Fleay knew animals. He knew them better than any white man in Australia, he had been told. At twenty-seven he was a veteran of countless natural history treatises and dissections. Once or twice though, he had encountered something in his subjects which defied quantification or diagramming. It had happened the first time he held a platypus, as a nature-mad boy in Victoria. This was more potent still. The Thylacine had a presence to it, which intensified the nearer he drew to the cage.

‘His name’s Benjamin,’ said a man in a waistcoat, with a little terrier dog at his side, ‘And you must be Mister Flea…’

David didn’t even think to correct him. All that he could concentrate on was getting past the wire, where there would be nothing to separate him from Benjamin.

Someone is new in this territory which is not mine, but which I know better than the one I have lost. A new smell, an intruder. What does he hide beneath that black cloth?

Inside the cage, Fleay found himself understanding why the early colonists had found it so hard to settle on a name for Thylacines. The animal before him looked in many ways very like a large dog, yet in just as many ways utterly unlike one. The visual character of the creature seemed fluid, shifting with each unhurried step it took. Now it becomes the Native Hyena, now the Zebra Opossum and now the Tasmanian Tiger. David wondered if this shifting was a trick of the European eye, or if it was somehow innate and fluidity was a trait of the species, passed down through generations.

For all Benjamin’s liminality there was also a singularity to him. The Thylacine’s presence, even in such mean and meagre surrounds, was ample justification of his scientific name. Thylacinus: the “pouched one”, the marsupial ne plus ultra. Hurriedly, Fleay began to set up his film equipment.

I see you. I watch you. Try me.

David Fleay began to film Benjamin. Silver halide, sheathed in gelatine and smeared across acetate, began to react to the sunlight filtering through Fleay’s lens. Light and darkness, motion and stillness, all would be captured. Thylacine shadows.

Nothing in Fleay’s first reel was darker than the Thylacine’s eyes though. Huge and black they were, blacker than any dog’s despite their quasi-canid setting. The darkness of Benjamin’s eyes left his stares open to interpretation and their truth inscrutable.

The man on the other side of the fence seemed nervous. He picked up a wooden paling and began tapping on the wire fence with it, hoping to catch Benjamin’s attention.

The intruder seems unmoved. The other one is agitated, as usual. That one makes so much noise, I wish he would stop but what can I do? I know what the two-legged beasts are capable of. My scar is my reminder. This quiet one though, this peculiar intruder, he is different. What does he intend?

When it came time to shoot the second reel, David could hardly believe that he was looking at the same animal. Benjamin had finally taken an interest in the waistcoated man’s piece of paling. Seen side-on in the afternoon sunlight, the Thylacine’s very stripes took on a new aspect. The pale fawn fur between the chocolate brown came to the fore as if the animal were dark-coated with light stripes. He is no more a true tiger than a true dog, Fleay mused.

Benjamin reared up angrily on his hind legs, roused by the incessant tapping of wood on wire. Standing as he did, the Thylacine’s head was fully five feet off the ground. In spite of the cage which circumscribed the creature, his vitality was unmistakeable. A line from the new American film, King Kong, which David had seen at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Ballarat sprang unbidden to mind. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive.

That four-legged one, so alike but yet so different. Such a false creature, whichever coat you wear. I have seen you set upon my own kind. Leave me be. I will not suffer your presence here.

The nearness of the little terrier to the chicken wire barrier was irritating to Benjamin, Fleay perceived. ‘Mister Reid, call your dog to heel would you please?’ David asked the waistcoated man. Reid did as he was requested and Fleay returned to his filmmaking.

With the dog having retreated, Benjamin visibly calmed. He paced about his one-hundred-fifty square foot domain of bare concrete. At certain angles, there was something of the native devil or the tiger quoll about the Thylacine. That said, for all the uniqueness and beauty of those two species, Fleay felt Benjamin occupied another order of magnitude, not just in size but in his very manner. The spirit of the Thylacine, for want of a more scientific word, was altogether apart from the other marsupial carnivores of Australia. Such is the way with apex predators and so it is with Benjamin.

The intruder hides behind his tool. He makes himself vulnerable. I will defend what remains to me. I will defend what little remains of me.

Benjamin opened his mouth wide and hissed at Fleay. No, not wide. Wide is not a big enough word. The Thylacine’s lower jaw seemed to hang independent of the rest of his skull, like a reddish-pink pharaonic beard grafted to the underside of his snout.

This was the first and last sound which David would hear from Benjamin. The Thylacine’s bite came quickly, as David knelt behind his camera. It was not terribly hard, though he knew his arse cheek would bleed through his trousers. It felt more like an announcement than an attack. Here I am – this is my place not yours. Queerly, it felt almost like an honour. Fleay found himself thinking of grey-bearded King George tapping men on the shoulder with his sword to make knights of the realm.

Fleay did not leave the cage immediately after being bitten, turning a deaf ear to the entreaties of Mister Reid. He took several photographs of Benjamin, who gave no further indication of hostility towards the human interloper.

My kind have never harmed yours without repercussion. Yet you did not retaliate. Who are you, stranger?

David shot one last snippet of film that afternoon. Benjamin sat sphinx-like and stared straight into the camera lens. At that moment, the indefinite nature of the Thylacine coalesced into something unmistakeable. Fleay felt the blackness of Benjamin’s eyes yield up an unadulterated emotion.

Loneliness. I am alone, utterly, pitiably unique. That snare killed me. Only now do I see that.

 

Within three years of David Fleay’s visit, Benjamin breathed his last. On the seventh of September 1936, his body was sent to the Tasmanian Museum. It met the same fate as Fleay’s application: refused by the Museum Board.

In 1935, Fleay was granted official permission to obtain a pair of Thylacines. His intention was to breed them in captivity. David would quite likely have succeeded in this endeavour, considering that he went on to make his name by captive breeding dozens of species for the very first time.

It was an event triggered halfway across the world that put paid to Fleay’s dream. The Great Depression forced him to wait until 1945 to go in search of Thylacines. He found traces of them, but Benjamin was to prove the first and last of his kind whom David Fleay would see with his own eyes. Funds dwindled again and the last, best hope of saving the Thylacine went with them.

Three of David Fleay’s short films survive from the nineteenth of December 1933. In total, their black-and-white silence runs to two minutes and thirty-one seconds. Each of these films individually is longer than all other known footage of captive Thylacines combined. There is no known footage of wild Thylacines.

Fleay’s grainy clips of Benjamin represent perhaps the most detailed scientific study of a living Thylacine ever undertaken.

Born naked and blind amongst mist and ferns, a son of our last redoubt. In time I crept from living shelter, the last to leave. I learned to feed, to speak, to hunt. I lived and loved beneath the trees. One by one, it came undone. The coldness of the hard new vines. The bite on the ankle. Canned fire at the command of a beast. Again, I was the last to leave, with raw dead wood on every side.

You may believe that I lived on in that place, but I know the truth. I was lost long before I arrived. If your kind must keep me for a memory, remember this.

You saw me dead.

But first I lived.

 

In memory of the Thylacine

 

Caged – by Louise Pallister

British artist Louise Pallister made this haunting film of the thylacine in 2014. Pallister explains:

The work derives from my fascination with the few minutes of zoo footage of the thylacine in Hobart zoo, pretty much the only evidence we have of this unique creature as a living being. Coming across this footage marked a turning point in my work as an artist concerned with depicting animals. My studies led me to re-evaluate the way in which I represented animals, uniting it with my interest in conservation and animal ethics. It no longer seems adequate to make fully representational studies of animals that have disappeared from the earth or are in danger of doing so.

Returning to the film, I made a large scale drawing, or drawings (nearly 300 in fact), stopping the archive film every few frames to draw the stages of the thylacine’s movement in charcoal, photographing it and then erasing in long sweeps so that the remaining markings were barred like a cage and redrawing over it.  I made the resulting photographs into a stop motion animation, in which the repetitive process of working and reworking mirrors the pacing characteristic of so many captive animals. Making a drawing of an animal is different to looking at a film of it, both for me in the time spent making and observing it, and hopefully for the viewer with the opportunity to consider again a sense of loss and intangibility on seeing the thylacine repeatedly made and unmade.

My practice now wholly concerns animals that are extinct, threatened or captive: I have another body of work concerning Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Again much of this work depicts the absence of the animal by marking out the space where it should be or erasing elements of it.”

afterthefacti

What do you and the Tasmanian Tiger have in common? – by Cassie Piccolo

Thylacine by courtesy of the artist Agata Ren

 

This piece by Cassie Piccolo was published in Words in the Bucket to mark the anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine:

What Do You and the Tasmanian Tiger Have in Common?

It is 2016 – a year of perpetual progress, demanding deadlines and heedless haste. Seconds spared for personal reflection, far between as they may be, are often consumed with personalized distraction to help in avoiding impending circumstances which this generation has no choice but to eventually face. Amid the discord caused by the inflation of humanity, there is the loss of countless lives of other creatures. At our own expense, the animal kingdom has lost over half of its beings- and the rate of loss continues to accelerate with entire species becoming extinct.

We are entering into what has officially been coined the Anthropocene epoch, translating to the “age of humans”. The epoch began in the 1950s, where the nuclear age, use of plastics and large population spikes began after the war. Recognized as the era when global destruction is profound, it reveals that  the next great period of extinction is well under way.

What has been occurring are successive events manipulated by human activity- climate change and alterations of whole cycles and ecosystems caused by events such as colonization and agriculture. These are impacts that we can decidedly control yet have only exacerbated.

Peoples’ ability to cope with the process is telling; despite the need to adjust lifestyles into something more sustainable, humanity seems stuck somewhere between feelings of denial and helplessness. The 3 species we permanently lose every hour are often addressed by the scientific community, yet are seldom culturally understood.

Founded in 2011, Remembrance Day for Lost Species is a series of events determined to honour the lost creatures of this epoch using theatre, storytelling, and memorial services. Each November 30th, anyone interested is invited to partake in rituals that assist us in engaging with the grief of extensive loss. In this way people can transform their experience of extinction into a will of action instead of one of despair or inertia through confronting ecological loss through a cultural ritual.

Persephone Pearl, co-director of ONCA and Feral Theatre who host the major Remembrance Day events, reflects on the significance of hosting such memorials. “It’s not science or statistics, it’s history, it’s real life- and in an age of cultural amnesia, storytelling inspired by historical events is a way to learn lessons from the past.” Such events can remind participants of past mistakes in human history, urging people to act upon the emotions they may be confronted with.

Humanity has engaged with many poor actions when it comes to operating society responsibly, especially by separating the human culture from the rest of nature. At the same time, there has been a lack of effort to reverse the wrongdoings we are now aware of. “The stories of extinct species are powerful, intelligible warnings about the consequences of human [in]action” Persephone asserts.

Use of ceremony and storytelling play a crucial part in bringing people to terms with the truth about our history and additionally with the challenges we will face ahead. When loved ones die, a procession commences and we can fully acknowledge that the deceased will be gone forever. Thus we become more capable of moving on due to closure. Similarly when animal species become completely extinct, they will never return to exist in any form- yet there is otherwise no such procession for ecological losses.

Death and loss are topics that are generally avoided when possible, however Feral Theatre aspires to transform those feelings into a channeling of collective hope. Through performance, the isolation or fear that are often associated with dying can instead take on a process of beauty and community. Events like Remembrance Day offer room for discussion and confrontation for topics such as environmental change that can otherwise fail to be addressed as often as they should.

Rituals have included ceremonies with poems and processions, songs and large-scale models of species that have been lost. For instance in 2011, a sculpture consisting of waste materials modeled into the image of the Bali Tiger was burned on a pyre after a procession similar to the style of a Balinese royal funeral. The merging of cultural and natural events brings honour to species that are otherwise only named and catalogued. It invites people to grieve for the species that are already gone.

Remembrance Day For Lost Species has been expanding its following in the UK and internationally since its beginnings, with scientists and historians becoming involved, as well as school students, who are in some cases already marking the date on their calendars. The separation of science and art continues to dissolve in most places, encouraging a broader group of participants to emerge. It is clear that the influence will continue to grow as the necessity for the event is further realized.

As an international event, people from everywhere are invited to hold their own events to honour extinct species. Every effort counts toward the momentum being assembled to confront the Anthropocene epoch. “Participation can be as simple as lighting a candle or holding a moment’s silence, or as extensive as a community parade or bell casting” says Persephone. Participants are encouraged to send their Remembrance Day efforts as photographs, videos and writings to ONCA to be collected and shared.

 

Thylacine – by Susan Richardson

On the 80th anniversary of the death in captivity of Benjamin the last known thylacine, poetry communicates some of the mystery of this creature and its story. Here is Thylacine by Susan Richardson, nature poet and co-editor of Zoomorphic magazine:

i was per-

haps. i am may-

be. Was nearly now, al-

most then. Ex-

tant, ex-

tinct, just visiting, dithering

with existence. Am

listed as critical. Was

history. Soon rumoured.

i am virtually non- un- on

the brink of unique,

(in)conceivably, (un)feasibly

a one-, two-, none-off.

Am RIP. Yet just as i re-

ceive a cairn of commemoration

i glimpse myself from the cor-

ner of my eye and

 

it was about ten metres away when I first noticed it. Sun was going down and I was stuffed after walking all day so I was waiting by the stream for Jase to put up the tent and make a fire and whatever the fuck else he does when he says it’s time to camp. Thought it was a dog at first – it was about the size of Jase’s sister’s Lab, the one that flobs all over you, kind of pale like a Labrador too, but then I saw the stripes, and its body looked weird – like heaps longer than it should’ve been. I was too freaked to move, just sat there, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even reach in my shorts for my phone. And just when I’m thinking I’m so going to pass out here, it turns round and disappears into the bush. And soon as it’s gone, Jase comes over – took his fucking time – and says I’ve got the fire going, Soph. This place is unreal!…Aw, what’s up? You look like you’ve seen a

 

dog- wolf-headed,

zebra- tiger-rumped.

i have bygonned

my image

on the rock. They called me

coorina, loarinna,

chimerical miracle.

i am thresh- flesh-

holding, solid as persecution,

dwelling in the realm

of (im)possibility where

there are fewer eucalypts

than there ever used to be.

Was i a clever fake? The proof

is (in)conclusive. My

marsupial pouch holds

only fables now –

the bandicoot i toss

to see which way it lands,

stars miraging

the loss of my before

after. Yet as i dis-

locate my jaw

with a phantom yawn a scream,

i dream clean pugmarks

in the mud and

 

mate, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was gone midnight, I’d skulled a few beers and was driving home over the Burrenbidgee. Parked by the bridge and got a pretty good squiz – it was standing there, ears up, tail out stiff like the tail of a roo – and then I thought I’d hop out the van and get a bit closer.  Mate, if I’d only had the three-oh-eight Winchester with me – guys spend years out in the bush trying to bag one of these bastards. Tried to film it on my phone before it shot through, but it was too shit-dark to see, so I grabbed my torch from the van and hunted round for a while and found what I reckon was a paw print. Soon as I got home, I googled it and, mate, I was

 

right wrong (un)thinkable,

(un)imaginable, (barely)

credible, a twilit inter-

stitial wish delivered

by the (un)conscious mind.

Whistle me up, make me limbo

liminal (in)visible,

see what you expect

hope grope to see. Am

psychopomp, tulpa,

(preter)natural personal guide.

Was a figment

of my hallucinationimagination.

(Not even) quasi-

 

 

 

German poetry site Fixpoetry has shared Der Beutelwolf, Mikael Vogel’s German-language poem about the thylacine, in honour of the anniversary. The poem comes from Dodos auf der Flucht (Dodos On The Run), Mikael’s book of poetry on extinct and endangered animals, which will come out next spring.

The idea of extinction – by Dr Sadiah Qureshi

To mark the 80th anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine, and to launch the 2016 season of remembrance for lost species, we will be releasing an extended series of blog posts over the autumn. These will consist of RDLS-inspired or extinction-related stories and projects from a broad range of contributing writers and artists. The image in this week’s post is a Micro CT scan of a sectioned thylacine skull from the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum at the University of Dundee, downloadable in 3D here.  Many thanks to Caroline Erolin of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification for sharing it with us.

The RDLS 2016 blog begins with this brief introduction to the idea of extinction from historian of race, science and empire, Dr Sadiah Qureshi of  University of Birmingham:

Over ninety percent of all the beings that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. If you’re reading this, you’re lucky enough to be in the 10% that have survived. Between fifty and ninety percent of those lost to us have disappeared in five mass extinctions such as the one that eliminated the dinosaurs. We are now living through the sixth mass extinction. The disappearance of flora and fauna is familiar to us all. Yet how did we come to view such loss as extinction?

Before the nineteenth century, animals and plants were known to have vanished. Infamously, hungry sailors arriving on the island of Mauritius found that flightless dodos were easy to catch and made a hearty meal. The sailors also brought pigs, dogs, cats and rats that preyed upon the birds’ eggs and destroyed their habitat. No one knows exactly when the last dodo died, but most sources suggest that it was extinct by 1680. Crucially, humans were known to have caused the extinction.

Accepting that extinction was an endemic feature of the natural world posed problems for scientists and theologians throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For the faithful, the possibility of extinction undermined the perfection they expected of a world designed by God to reveal natural plenitude. In such a world, Creation always exhibited its fullest range of diversity and all possible forms of being existed.

For the faithless, it seemed far more likely that migration or evolution accounted for apparent loss. After all, much of the earth remained unexplored. Animals known only from fossils might be alive in tropical jungles or many leagues under the sea. The American President Thomas Jefferson, a keen collector of fossils, famously claimed that megabeasts might still be found in the far West. It was rare for anyone to claim that past forms might have evolved but it remained a possibility. By the early nineteenth century, evolution, migration and extinction were all seen as equally plausible theories for explaining natural loss.

Extinction became an increasingly popular theory with the work of French comparative anatomist George Cuvier. After the French Revolution, the government established the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Cuvier was given a job. He quickly gained a reputation for being a world authority on fossils and reconstructing entire animals from tiny handful of bones. In 1796 Cuvier published an article comparing a fossil elephant to living Asian and African elephants. He proclaimed that the fossil was an unknown and extinct species. Several more articles on elephants and the mastodon had appeared by 1806. Cuvier’s detailed anatomical research was compelling, and helped establish the reality of endemic extinction.

We are so familiar with extinction that it is easy to overlook the significance of the early nineteenth century. Accepting that extinction had always occurred in the natural world underpinned later theories of evolution, including humans, and conservation efforts. For Species Remembrance Day it is also worth remembering the history of extinction of as an idea.