Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

Jonathan Balcombe Ph.D.

The Inner Lives of Animals

Extinction Folly -- Review of Paper Tiger: A Visual History of the Thylacine

The extinction of the Thylacine was a deliberate, calculated act.

Posted Nov 17, 2010

Last week, scientists at the United Nations' 10th Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan, report that more than one-fifth of the world's species are in danger of extinction. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be news; the eventual extinction of species is almost as inevitable as the eventual death of individuals. The great majority of all the species that ever existed on Earth are no longer here. What remains newsworthy is that the current spasm of extinctions is caused by us--specifically, our destruction and pollution of habitats and our persecution of wildlife by hunting and commercial exploitation.

Anthropogenic extinction is hardly a new thing. After arriving in North America, European settlers ushered out the Carolina Lorikeet, the Steller's Sea Cow, the Labrador Duck, the Great Auk, and most famously the Passenger Pigeon. Island species are especially vulnerable because they have nowhere else to go. On Madagascar, the Dodo was clubbed and cooked to extinction within 100 years of the arrival of Portuguese sailors and Dutch settlers. It took the Maori a few centuries longer, but they too had neither the foresight nor the conviction to avoid sending several species of Moa to oblivion in New Zealand.

A less known but equally compelling case is the Thylacine, the largest predatory marsupial of the modern era, and the focus of a new book, Paper Tiger: A Visual History of the Thylacine, by Dr. Carol Freeman of the University of Tasmania. More commonly known as the "Tasmanian Wolf" or "Tasmanian Tiger," the Thylacine was a close relative of the ill-named Tasmanian Devil. Already uncommon when Europeans began settling on the island in the early 19th Century, Thylacines soon became the target of sheep farmers, whose unsubstantiated claims that they attacked and killed sheep were, according to Freeman, a convenient alibi for the industry's setbacks. Two reference books in my library published in the 1930s--Animal Life of the World, and The Concise Universal Encyclopedia--refer to the Thylacine, respectively, as almost exterminated for the havoc it wreaks among sheep, and almost exterminated as a marauder of flocks. A series of bounties from 1830 until well into the 20th Century helped seal the Thylacine's fate. The last captive one died at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania in 1936. Wikipedia's excellent entry includes a photo of the last wild individual shot, posed alongside the farmer who shot him. At least we can be thankful that the advent of moving film preceded the animal's total disappearance. Rare and wonderful footage of Thylacines can be viewed here.

Freeman's thesis is that visual depictions of Thylacines were used to bolster antipathy toward the species and thereby contributed to its extinction. While most of the 80 illustrations she reproduces appear to be sincere efforts at accurate representation, there is plenty here to distort perceptions. One early rendering looks rather like an enlarged ferret, another an opossum, and one strikingly like a civet. An 1884 engraving of a Thylacine attacking a platypus grossly underestimates the predator's size by depicting it as no larger than its quarry. The replacement of engravings, lithographs and drawings with photographs obviously improved the accuracy of un-staged or un-retouched Thylacine depictions. But there were many ways to doctor a photograph even before the advent of Photoshop. Virtually all are of captive animals, and in many the background has been either erased or concocted. This is where Freeman's thesis is the strongest. One profile of a yawning Thylacine from 1909 has been retouched for a 1913 book, with heavy canine fangs added. Freeman makes a compelling case that the one image of a wild Thylacine with prey--a 1921 photo showing a Thylacine with a chicken in its mouth--is actually a fake. The body has the unrealistic rigidity of a mounted (dead) specimen, its legs sticklike, with furred flesh having a lifeless quality unbefitting an animal trying to subdue a large, flapping bird. Freeman asserts that this photograph's acceptance as a genuine and accurate portrayal by the scientific community for a long period demonstrates the deceptive potential of photography and our ingrained conditioning to see what we expect to see. As is shown here, the photo was taken in captivity. This manipulation of public sentiments against wild nature resonates with my last blog on Bear Grylls and his ilk.

Intriguingly, while Freeman's text focuses on the human assault against the species, none of the images she compiled shows a Thylacine being persecuted by man. For instance, she excluded this arresting image, which I first saw during a visit to Tasmania in 2007: a dead Thylacine hangs nose-down before its presumed killer, strung up by the hind-legs, its robust tail arcing away from the body under its own weight. It is as though the author took pains to avoid any hint that she might--like the sheep farmers--be manipulating her readers.

I don't share the author's view that some early observers of Thylacines wrote "intrusive, obsessional recordings of the animal's body ... that no function can justify" (p 62). Biologists, and taxonomists especially, value meticulous detail as a basic tool of classification and adaptive interpretation. Who are we to say, for instance, that no function underlies "the exceedingly rough underside of the toes"? Adaptationists attribute even the minutest of anatomic features to evolutionary advantage. "Intrusive" implies that there is something offensive about describing such detail, but I don't know what it is.

As an animal lover, I found Paper Tiger one of the saddest books I've read. I had mistakenly thought that the Thylacine's extinction was a tragic accident, when in fact it was a malicious thing, a result of deliberate efforts bent on its extermination. I commend Carol Freeman for making this a readable book when many scholarly works in Human-Animal Studies are not. Her language is straightforward and unpretentious. By avoiding the rhetoric of advocacy she constructs a more powerful indictment against the forces that contributed to this magnificent animal's demise.

Today, occasional unconfirmed sightings of Thylacines and rewards offered for a living specimen seem like wishful thinking. As decades pass and more humans tread the dwindling wilds of Tasmania without any authenticated sightings, the finality of the Thylacine's fate seems assured.