“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