I just read Animal Nation: The True Story of Animals and Australia by Adrian Franklin (UNSW Press, 2006) and it got me thinking about dingoes, cats and Illyarri gum trees. Animal Nation is about Franklin’s research into our views on animals. At times Franklin’s writing can tend towards the academic (I zoned out a bit during the discussion of Durkheim’s theories of Totemism), but it’s written for a general readership and most of the time the writing is accessible. His references are endnotes, so they don’t interrupt the flow of the text, but they’re available if you want to read more.
Some of Franklin’s ideas are confronting. I was shocked in his questioning of the continued effort to eradicate feral animals, particularly cats . Franklin wonders why we continue in these eradication efforts when scientific opinion shows this can’t possibly succeed (p. 148). I read about feral cat control in Western Australia in the summer issue of Landscope and it’s not pointless. I was both saddened to see the cute litter of tabby kittens that would grow into “murderous moggies” and heartened that small steps toward “conservation gains” are occurring. Cats are amazingly ingenious at learning to avoid baits and survive well in dry and drought-prone environments, common in WA. This, combined with the fact that cats arrived in WA before foxes, and evidence from CSIRO, enables Dr Jeff Short to counter
Tim Flannery’s claim that the majority of those who assert that cats have caused extinctions in Australia are simply cat-haters who have allowed their prejudice to override their scientific reason. 
I’m very happy that not everyone is as cynical as Franklin. Work towards eradicating feral animals is necessary and continuing, even if we never will be entirely successful as Franklin contends.
As interesting aspect of Animal Nation is Franklin’s discussion of how the British, Americans and Australians talk about their countries’ wildlife. Australians are the only ones who talk about feral (introduced) animals as pests. I often blog about this topic, although I use the watered-down term introduced species and the tag invasive species. There are a few other wordpress bloggers who use this tag, particularly Ralph Maughan who blogs about the wild places of Idaho in the US. So not everyone is as Franklin states, but he is discussing the majority.
I love dogs, so of course I love dingoes (Canis lupis). I also love wolves, but I know a wolf in Australia would be so wrong and cause enormous havoc. Dingoes are pretty much just wolves in Australia. They were (once) domesticated dogs introduced from Asia by the first Indigenous Australians – and they caused havoc. Dingoes never made it to Tasmania where two iconic Tasmanian predators – the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) – survived, whereas they didn’t on the mainland. And then we went and killed all the thylacines .
Illyarrie gum trees (Eucalyptus erythrocorys) are everywhere in Perth. Their splashes of red and yellow in summer/autumn always make me smile. When I was a kid they grew at my school and the red caps made perfect fairy hats. They still do, but I don’t see so many fairies now I’m all grown up. I recently discovered Illyarrie are native to the Geraldton sandplains, 400km north of Perth. So if I’m to be true to my only-locally-native-plants-and-animals-are-nice idea, I should stop liking them. I can’t do it!
Then there’s the dilemma of galahs vs rainbow lorikeets. I grew up with pink and grey galahs (Cacatua roseicapilla) foraging for seed on road verges and I love them. Rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) arrived in Perth from the eastern states of Australia in 1968.  (There is a subspecies of rainbow lorikeet in the Kimberleys, NT and far north-western Qld, but the Perth/eastern states subspecies is different.) I never saw rainbow lorikeets during my childhood, so I think of them as not belonging in Perth. My mum told me that when she was a kid (1950s) there were no galahs in Perth. They used to live in the wheatbelt area east of Perth. As more and more land has been cleared for growing all that wheat there’s less and less trees with hollows for galahs to nest* and so they came to Perth. (There’s no trees in the country, so they come to the city. WTF!) So galahs are just as “introduced” as rainbow lorikeets and might even have arrived in Perth after rainbow lorikeets. The conundrums just keep mounting!?
Even before I read Animal Nation I was flexible in my dislike of introduced species. My garden is full of succulents, most of which are native to South Africa or Central America and I live with three cats and Sheeba the sk8 dog.
Franklin was kind enough to clear up something for me. A few years ago I saw a front page newspaper story, complete with photo of a cute furry possum, about keeping native animals as domestic pets. When I read the story I thought, that would be so cool. I’ve been trying to find the article, thinking it would be good to blog about. Franklin found it for me and told me the spin that went with the story. In 1996 a WA Federal politician must have been fishing for someone’s vote and told the papers he wanted to eradicate all feral cats in Australia by 2020 and find some nice cuddly native animals to be domesticated as replacements for all those unhappy cat owners (p.18). The newspaper must have had a photo of a possum to hand and that was what they added to fill up the front page on that slow news day. No wonder I couldn’t find the story when it was 12 years ago!
Animal Nation provided me with much to think on and I will continue to mull over Franklin’s ideas for quite some time. I recommend this excellent read to anyone with an interest in Australia’s nature.
*note on tree hollows
Another bird which is in a worse way for the lack of hollows in trees is the Carnaby’s black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris). They take longer to reach maturity and breed than galahs or their close relative Baudin’s black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus baudinii), so this lack of nesting sites is forcing them closer to extinction.
- Franklin, Adrian (2006) Animal Nation: The True Story of Animals and Australia. Sydney: NSW Press.
- Short, Jeff (2007) “Controversial cats” Landscope magazine, vol.23, no.2, p.55-61.
- Crew & Wilson (2003) I saw nothing: The extinction of the Thylacine. Melbourne: Lothian.
- Storr & Johnstone (1985) Field Guide to the Birds of Western Australia. Perth: WA Museum.