Thylacinus Cynocephalus: Lessons From Art

The theory of natural selection is grounded in the belief that each new variety and ultimately each new species, is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those with which it comes into competition; and the consequent extinction of less favoured forms inevitably follows.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

In 1933 the last thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger was captured in Florentine Valley, Tasmania and sold to Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo. While the Tasmanian Government finally fought to protect her species, the female tiger lay in her enclosure in intolerable conditions. Just before the last Tasmanian Tiger closed her eyes to this world on 7 September 1936, the government succeeded and her species was added to the list of protected wildlife. Fifty years later, in 1986 the thylacine was formally declared extinct by international standards, but the animal still has a powerful hold. A pup accidentally preserved in alcohol instead of formalin, thus retaining its DNA, led the Australian Museum to announce in 1999 an attempt to clone the animal, while in 2001 the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery proposed a Tiger hunt to test faeces from the old haunts of the thylacine.

The thylacine has reached iconic status, engraved in society’s memory. As it belongs to our recent history, it is a tangible, bona fide recording of cultural and scientific cognisance, a wound that to this day is still festering. Now lost to the world, scientists are endeavouring to understand its ecology and the lessons that such a recent extinction can provide. Artists, social theorists and psychologists are responding to the cultural dimensions and impacts of extinction and the environment in which we live. The demise of the thylacine in our recent past has been used as a reference point in understanding ourselves within the natural and social environment.

Thylacinus cynocephalus or dog-headed pouched dog, was a big, dog-like marsupial, with powerful jaws, a large head and a long stiff tail. Its short, brownish fur was banded all across the back with much darker, broad transverse stripes, which gave it its common name, the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. It was mainly nocturnal or semi-nocturnal, its movements slow except for short pursuits. The thylacine hunted singly or in pairs and preferred kangaroos and other marsupials, small rodents and birds.

Fossils millions of years old show that the thylacine was once widespread over continental Australia, extending north to Papua-New Guinea and south to Tasmania. When the dingo was introduced to mainland Australia, they began to decline, as they were unable to compete with the dingo and were a source of food for the indigenous population. Added to that were climatic changes, and the advancing arid zone. The thylacine became extinct on the mainland over 2,000 years ago, though a mummified thylacine was found in a cave on the Nullabor.

In Tasmania, European settlement, the introduction of the domestic dog, as well as disease and habitat destruction caused the thylacine’s eventual extinction. The arrival of European settlers marked the beginning of a tragic period of conflict that led to the thylacine’s annihilation. The introduction of sheep to Tasmania in 1824 culminated in a violent political and economic campaign to exterminate the thylacine. Robert Paddle in his book The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2000) exposes the economic ineptitude of the early sheep farmers in Tasmania and the scape-goating of the thylacine for ongoing cover-ups for these failings. Consequently, in 1830, the Van Diemen’s Land Co., which set up sheep farming in Tasmania, introduced a thylacine bounty, which spelt the beginning of the end for this greatly misunderstood marsupial. Paddle shows that the bounty, which drove trapping and shooting, wiped out the tiger population. Private and government bounties lasted well into the twentieth century. By 1910 the rarity of Australia’s largest marsupial prompted a spate of collecting by museums and scientists; this aggressive collection of the now-rare thylacine, without a captive breeding program, hurried its demise. Such are the current concerns relating collection methodology in museums.

Michael McWilliams’ recent exhibition Pest to Pedestal poignantly explores the history of the thylacine. In the Spotlight represents the thylacine on a stage; its gaze meets the viewer, its mystery penetrating our psyche. The viewer is locked onto this gaze that provokes a myriad of questions: Does the thylacine exist (the artist himself cannot believe in its extinction)? Why is it extinct? Who is to blame? What are the lessons?

McWilliams’ Too Much To Handle represents a panoramic view of three large merino sheep and a thylacine. The protagonists are positioned in the foreground, the central sheep staring out at the viewer. Can the thylacine possibly take on all three sheep? According to the early settlers, the thylacine was a vicious dangerous animal, accused of vampirism and capable of taking several sheep in one kill. There is no doubt that sheep predation did occur (six documented occurrences); however it is erroneous to believe that the thylacine could have had the potential to devastate the sheep population. In fact it never did.

The extinction of the thylacine is an awakening of human evolution. Charles Darwin’s edict, which has entered the populist discourse as ‘adapt or die’, holds true for the extinction of the thylacine. Placental chauvinism, coined by Robert Paddle, absolved humans from primary or sole responsibility in exterminating the thylacine. Statements such as the marsupial’s ‘low degree of intelligence’, ‘thylacine’s are not very adaptable’ or that they are ‘animals that evolution passed by’ are all unfounded claims based on imperialist and colonialist agendas. Terra incognita was a means of justifying the actions of the early European settlers. Regardless, sheep farmers, particularly early colonial sheep farmers, were responsible for the killing of the largest Australian carnivore.

The Norwegian artist Ole Jorgen Ness and Melbourne artist Angus Blackburn explored this ignorance in their installation titled Ignorance is an empty space. These artists investigated the way humans relate to the environment. They are concerned with the history of the landscape and the role that we as individuals and as a society have manipulated and defined it to suit our needs. Jorgen Ness and Blackburn are juxtaposing early colonial pursuits of the idea of progress, controlling and improving the landscape and everything contained within it, with contemporary perceptions of the virtues of western democracy. What has really changed? They have used old prints representing the thylacine, toys and other thylacine paraphernalia, delving into humankind’s obsession to appropriate, control and consume everything around it.

Simon Normand’s sculpture of the thylacine draws our attention to past destruction of the environment of the flora and fauna. The bronze representation of the thylacine sits on a great slab of Huon pine, a tree that germinated 1,500-2,000 years ago, about at the same time the thylacine became extinct on the mainland. Normand’s works on paper and sculpture scrutinise humankind’s destruction, and possession of the environment. Covertly political, Normand questions earth’s sustainability and our place within it.

This ideological framework persists in the recent proposals to bring back the thylacine. The race to cure extinction predicates a range of ecological, ethical and social implications of reversing nature’s evolutionary mechanism, playing God by controlling and shaping our environment, easing our conscience and reversing the past. The cloning project is fecund with savoir-faire and sensationalism, where the pursuit of science joins hands with the pursuit to possess. Where will the thylacine live? Most of its natural habitat has been destroyed or altered as seen in Michael McWilliams’ painting Nowhere to Go. The trees have been felled, the terrain is flat, there is nowhere for the thylacine to proliferate, nowhere to hide. Dr David Pemberton, Senior Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery suggests that there needs to be a shift in balance. The problem lies not with the extinction of the thylacine but with the extinction of the ecosystems and the need, if any, to be strategic about replacing extinct species.

Many believe that the thylacine still exists. There have been unsubstantiated sightings not only in Tasmania but also on the mainland. Audrey Bergner’s sketchy, abstracted representations of the thylacine are a response to an experience she encountered in 1990 in southern Victoria. Driving with a friend, she encountered what they believed was a thylacine. The story was relayed to others who unsurprisingly suggested that people do see them sometimes. An expatriate living in Israel, Bergner began to paint Australia 29 years ago. Her representations of the elusive thylacine represent a spirit of place and personal identity to the Australian landscape. Thylacines are placed within a central Australian landscape, her palette consisting of colours of the land, reds and ochres. Bergner’s haunting and delicate watercolours are concerns about the environment, mortality and extinction, using the thylacine as a departure point.

Daniel Moynihan has used the thylacine in his paintings since the 1970s. In The Meeting – Wickerman and the Tasmanian Tiger he has brought together his ancestral Celtic past and joined it with the myth of the thylacine. According to the Celtic myth, before crops were planted the Celts and later pagans would build an effigy and then burn the Wickerman, gather up the potash it left behind and spread the fertiliser on their fields for a successful season of crop production. The destruction of the thylacine was also considered beneficial for the growth of the early colonial farmers and its sacrifice a small price for the overall benefit of the community.

The painting, which is predominantly red, encompasses the motifs found in past paintings. The thylacine, the wickerman, the cityscape, the convict tools of labour have all been collected and placed within the canvas embodying 30 years of memory and the representation of myth and its associative value to the individual and the society which it inhabits.

The thylacine, which has reached mythical proportions, has provoked highly personal responses and interpretations by the art and scientific communities as well as the general public. The thylacine has captured the imagination of many generations and will continue to do so. The popularisation of the thylacine through commercial appropriation ensures that the thylacine’s extinction is revisited and subsequently etched into our memory.

Through their esoteric responses to the thylacine, artists attempt to create a greater awareness for the responsibility of individuals towards the environment and the richness of its bio-diversity. When Noel McKenna painted Captured Thylacine, he responded not only to the past but also the continual predilection of the human species to trap, possess, control and at times annihilate the ‘less favoured forms’, for the perpetuation of its own genus.

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