Defending the devil: Tasmanian sanctuary protects endangered marsupial
It’s winter on the Australian island of Tasmania, and my shoulders are baking in the late afternoon sun as Greg Irons, owner and director of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, climbs into an enclosure with two Tasmanian devils. Prince and Prada, a male and a female, are siblings that were hand-raised at Bonorong after their mother abandoned them.
Prince is reluctant to emerge from his burrow, but Prada ambles up to Irons and climbs in his lap. “Look at this, the ferocious Tasmanian devil,” he says. “You’ve been a good girl today, haven’t you, sausage?” he asks, scratching the top of her head. Her white whiskers quiver.
He stands up, Prada’s head resting on his elbow, one hand cradling her hindquarters. Her left paw dangles languidly over his arm. I give her a pat, the black fur softer and less wiry than it looks.
“I’m going to have to put you down now,” he says, kneeling.
She springs to the ground, grunting in protest. Although this is my first time meeting Irons, it’s not my first visit to Bonorong. I have the good fortune of visiting Australia annually — a perk of being married to an Aussie — and, as an ardent animal lover, have seen my share of the country’s sanctuaries, zoos and parks. But it’s Bonorong that I keep coming back to.
Located about 45 minutes outside Tasmania’s capital of Hobart, Bonorong is the anti-zoo. There is no train ride, no tinny narration by overly enthusiastic guides. Instead, there are typical Australian fauna and species unique to Tasmania. Many of the animals are temporary residents: injured or orphaned, they’re released if and when it’s appropriate. Bonorong also runs wildlife rescue and seabird rehabilitation programs, and houses the world’s only retirement community for Tasmanian devils, called Devil’s Run. And Devil’s Run is why I’m meeting with Irons.
While the Looney Tunes character snarls like a maniac, the actual Tasmanian devil is a timid, carnivorous marsupial about the size of a Jack Russell terrier, though stockier, lower to the ground and with a bigger head. Its black fur is punctuated by a white stripe across its chest.
“Devils used to be all over Australia, but they became extinct on the mainland prior to European settlement,” Irons explains. Now found only on Tasmania, the species, listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has a number of factors conspiring against it. Many of the crepuscular creatures are hit by cars each year as they scavenge roadkill from busy streets. Some are attacked by dogs. Less common these days is deliberate poisoning by people who view the devil as a pest. But the most prominent reason is what Irons calls The Disease: Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a contagious form of cancer that has plagued the wild devil population.
On the devil’s odds, Irons is both sanguine and pragmatic.
“It’s an incredibly hardy animal,” he says. “It can eat any form of meat. It can have one big feed and not eat for five days, no worries at all, and it only needs a little bit of water to survive. But can they handle the threats they face? Yeah, they can handle one. But can they handle all four, at the same time, when they all live on one island? Nah, probably not.”
In response, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has established an insurance population: captive breeding devils that represent the known genetic strains in the wild. In conjunction, there are vaccine-development projects and international research collaborations, and there have been several releases of captive populations into controlled areas. Because of the fragility of the wild devil population, Prince and Prada can’t be released.
“If we released them in the wrong spot, we could provide a bridge for the disease and make it worse,” Irons says.
Three years ago, Irons inquired about starting an insurance population at Bonorong and learned that the real need was space for older devils that were past breeding age. (Devils typically live to be 5 or 6 and breed between ages 2 and 4.)
“Once a devil’s done its thing, what do you do? Just euthanize it? That’s not right,” he said. “That’s where we said, ‘Why don’t we build a giant retirement village?’ ”
From Bonorong’s upper level, we make our way down to Devil’s Run, which sprawls across the bottom of the sanctuary. Past visitors frantically photographing four baby wombats bottle-feeding from a ranger’s lap, past another group cooing over a sleepy koala radiating the smell of menthol, we head down a sloped meadow speckled with gray Forester kangaroos and their smaller, redder cousins, the Bennett’s wallaby. Some are eating out of visitors’ hands while others laze in the shade. Suddenly, a sprinkler goes off, sending marsupials careening in every direction. Irons unlatches the Devil’s Run gate, and we follow the path through the acres-long space that spans the width of Bonorong’s property. He points out a bungee cord dangling from a tree. “We attach meat to it so if a devil’s not with others, it has to have a bit of a fight to get a meal.” A few feet over, a gnarled log buttressed with twigs and rocks doesn’t look like much, but apparently it’s prime real estate. “It’s just really appetizing,” Irons says. “We have 40 dens, and there’s always a devil in there.” Further on, he points to a stack of large, flat rocks that form a squat burrow. Suddenly, a small face peers around the back of it: black nose, brown snout, white whiskers. Above bright black eyes, pink triangular ears sit at attention. And just as quickly, it’s gone. “Do you know which one that was?” I ask. “Nah,” he says. “I couldn’t see well enough to see the markings. But it was definitely a female.” “How can you tell?” “The females have a pointy nose. The males are boof heads,” he said, using Australian slang for someone with a large, squarish head (and often an implied lack of intellect). Unlike Prince and Prada, who have seen a daily stream of visitors from Day 1, the retired devils are used to a more solitary lifestyle. Although Devil’s Run is an important educational tool for Bonorong, the point is not for visitors to see a geriatric devil; the point is for the devils to have a place to roam in peace while they live out their days. At the moment, there are only eight residents in Devil’s Run, which slims our sighting odds. “If there were 20 in here, you’d probably only see one or two,” Irons says. We’ve already seen one, so I’m happy. But on our way out, we get even luckier. One of the devils’ concrete ponds is being refurbished, so a bright-blue paddling pool is immediately visible - and inside it, a devil stands the equivalent of knee-deep in water. He considers us for a moment, then clambers out of the pool before shuffling away. The rustle of grass, the flick of his tail, and he’s gone.
Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; $50 for families of two adults and two children, $18.50 for adults, $8.50 for kids ages 3-15, free for children age 2 and younger. Includes one bag of kangaroo food per person. Rental car or bus tour is the best way to reach Bonorong from Hobart; public transportation is not recommended.