Fierce and ugly, with forty-two needle-sharp teeth by the age of two, the terrier-sized Tasmanian Devil is not the most loved ofAustralia’s marsupials. But on a visit to theTasmanianDevilPark andWildlifeRescueCenter in thePort Arthur region ofTasmania,Australia, my husband and I met a little Devil that the unwary might find as cuddly as a plush toy.
The jet-black, course-furred, eight-month old was an orphan being raised in the park’s nursery; this carnivore’s sleepy appearance gives him a look of complete innocence. A triangle of white accents his hindquarters and matches a strip across his chest; dark eyes and pink ears complete the picture. Born blind and deaf, young Devils called “Joeys,” have bad eyesight and flash photos are forbidden. Lactose intolerant, infants are fed special formulas to keep them healthy. It takes about forty weeks to wean a baby and Joeys are encouraged to drink from bowls as soon as possible. At about five and one-half months they begin to teeth and chew on bony shin bits.
A loner, the Devil begins to breed by the age of two; the female visits the male den for a interlude of about two weeks in March and the blessed event takes place about three weeks later. At birth, the Devil has been described as being the size of a jellybean. Up to thirty “Jelly beans” try to make their way to their mother’s backward-styled pouch; nature’s way of ensuring that dirt doesn’t enter when mom is tearing into carrion. Since there are just four teats in the pouch only three or four survive. The Joeys latch onto mother’s milk teats for about three months then they’re left in their grass and leaf lined den – a cave, a hollow log or an old wombat burrow – while mom forages for food. Later, they may hitch a ride on her back or follow along behind. Though they achieve independence by twenty-eight weeks and are agile enough to climb a tree, many never reach maturity as predators often attack them. At night, these nocturnal creatures usually meander along secondary roads looking for road-kill; unfortunately automobiles often hit them as they feast on a diet of wallaby, rodents or lizards. A Devil, fortunate enough to survive the hazards Devils face, may reach the age of six to eight years.
Grown Devils feed at 11:00 am; the former jelly bean now has a broad head, reminiscent of a bear, a muzzle with long whiskers and a squat body with a short, thick tail and back paws with four toes. Devils enjoy nothing so much as a good fight or chase around the enclosure; when angry their pink ears turn red with increased blood flow. Weighing anywhere from nine to twenty-six pounds, they’re particularly aggressive when it comes to food. Snorts, whistles, growls, screeches and demonic screams, worthy of a Stephen King horror movie, rend the air when a Devil protects its find or a competitor ignores the challenge of a sharp sneeze. An overwrought Devil emits a pungent odor only a deodorant manufacturer would enjoy. Often a Devil will sport scars or missing patches of fur earned in combat. Endowed with the strongest jaws and teeth of any animal, nothing edible goes to waste when this marsupial devours carrion or prey. The Tasmanian Devils at the Park are either orphans or have been bred here. Females and their young are kept separate from the males who exhibit no paternal pride in their offspring and would make a happy meal of them.
Fossils have been found all over Australia, but living Devils are found only in Tasmania, having lost a battle over the same food supply favored by the Dingo, a wild dog brought to the mainland by the Indigenous People over 600-years ago. The Dingo never crossed the 150-mileBass Strait that separates theIsland ofTasmania from the southeastern mainland and here, the Devil survives.
A rough period for Devils began in 1830—farmers considered them a nuisance as they ate livestock and poultry. Van Dieman’s Land Company paid a bounty of twenty-five cents for males and thirty-five cents for females and many a Devil was poisoned or caught in a trap. It wasn’t until June 1941, that Devils came under the protection of the law. Today they are a symbol of theTasmanianNational Parks and Wildlife Service and farmers realize they have a place in the food chain; they clean up the carrion that would pollute the land and prey on mice and other pests that consume agricultural produce. NOTE: Since our visit, the Tasmanian population has been devastated by a facial tumor disease sweeping through the population. The disease kills more than 90% of young adults in high density areas and is spread through biting. Australian scientists and medical personnel are doing their best to find a cure and keep the Devil from extinction. According to the NY Times, Australian biologists have established a refuge for fifteen cancer-free Devils on Maria Island, three miles off the Australian island state of Tasmania hoping to keep the Tasmanian Devil from extinction.