September 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Not a Dog

By Christine Kenneally
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Strangeness of Dingoes

On a windy autumn day on a green hill near Gisborne in Victoria, Lyn Watson, the co-founder of the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre, calls out to Snapple, a male dingo. The red-blond canine trots over and sits patiently as Watson demonstrates all the ways a dingo is not a dog. First, she puts a hand under the animal’s chin and one at the top of its head, then – as if it has a hinge at the back of its neck – she gently pushes back until the top of the dingo’s skull touches its spine. With Snapple’s head upright again, Watson turns its ears like radar dishes. When dingoes hunt, one ear points directly forward and one directly back. Next, Watson rotates the dingo’s head from side to side, and it travels at least 200 degrees each way. It’s like the famous head-spinning scene in The Exorcist, except it’s adorable.

Why do dingoes have hinged heads? Watson believes it helps them track possums and other small prey through trees – which, it turns out, dingoes can climb. She spreads the oval pads on one of Snapple’s paws. They can lift an egg, she tells me. Last, she stands Snapple up and we admire the thick white fur that covers his belly. Domestic dogs lost this layer long ago. They don’t do a lot of burrowing any more. But Watson takes me to an inconspicuous hole near a log in the paddock. It extends four and a half metres underground, yet no one saw the dingoes dig it and no one has any idea where all the displaced dirt went. It turns out that the life of a dingo is full of mystery, at least from a human perspective. The problem, says Watson, is that because dingoes look like dogs, we think we know them. Now, Australia’s most enigmatic animal is endangered, and if it wasn’t for Watson, we wouldn’t even know what we don’t know about them.

A small, sun-tanned woman who is approaching 70 but seems 15 years younger, Watson walks through the sanctuary with a sense of command and an energetic curiosity. Although she started out in secretarial school (her father believed that girls shouldn’t be educated), she now knows more about Australia’s indigenous canines than any scientist or farmer out there. But she knows domestic dogs, too. She travels internationally to judge dog shows, and for 25 years she bred her own. She started with Pekingese. At the time, she said, the little dog’s show-world was rigidly controlled by a clique of old ladies. “They had rules for preparing your dog and rules for showing, and they were not the ways of young people.” Watson rebelled against the Pekingese matriarchy and got the rules changed. Then, with her husband Peter, she took on the old boys’ network at the Australian National Kennel Council, and Peter became the council’s first democratically elected president. Later, Watson moved from Pekingese to Afghan hounds. They are “terribly independent, very cat-like and intelligent”. She thinks of them now as “dingoes in drag”.

Yet dingoes were her first love. As a child visiting the Sir Colin MacKenzie Fauna Park (now Healesville Sanctuary), Watson would climb through the gaps in the dingo enclosure and sit with the wild animals while her family walked around. She was given a pair of dingoes 25 years ago, and since then she and her husband have lived like nineteenth-century natural historians – studying dingo psychology and physiology by closely observing them over 20 generations, breeding them to maintain their genetic purity, and going on expeditions to visit the five other wild canids of the world. Two years ago, they rode on horses with wooden saddles in the scrubby mountains of Ethiopia to find the native wolf, a large, foxy animal that is almost extinct in the wild. Watson has also visited wolves in Finland. “Beautiful,” she says, “but no sense of humour.”

By contrast, the dingo is a dolphin-like mix of acrobatics and inquisitiveness. Though it entered Australia some five thousand years ago semi-domesticated, it has adapted to desert, alpine and rainforest regions since then, and sometimes engaged in a loose partnership with Aboriginal people. Even in colonial times, settlers could tell that dingoes were different from dogs or wolves. They wrote of being followed through the bush by dingoes – not as prey, but out of curiosity. More recently, an experiment comparing domesticated dogs and wolves showed that if a dog is confronted with an intractable problem, it looks to the nearest human for help, whereas a wolf does not. Bradley Smith, now at the University of Central Queensland, ran the same test on Watson’s dingoes for his PhD. He found that a dingo is more likely than a wolf to look to a human for help, but less likely than a dog. Dingoes persevered longer than dogs but gave up sooner than wolves.

Watson is hoping to build a public centre so that all Australians can see the uniqueness of the dingo. In the meantime, she continues to reach out to scientists, including a team from Harvard who are as intrigued by the canine’s minds as their gymnastic skills. “Dingoes have entirely different brain chemistry,” she says, as we watch a large animal being picked up by one of the sanctuary volunteers and hung upside down from its hips. A dog would stiffen, but the dingo goes obligingly limp, swaying slightly as it looks around. The ability to instantly relax protects the animal’s limbs should it fall. Dingoes bond to their territory, too. “Domestic dogs don’t have the territorial feelings or the insecurities that a dingo has,” says Watson. “It’s all about surviving in the wild.”

Christine Kenneally
Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. She has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate and New Scientist. @chriskenneally

Cover: September 2012

September 2012

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