By JAMES GORMAN and CHRISTINE KENNEALLY Published: March 5, 2012
Thirty-two years ago, 9-week old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from a campsite in the Australian outback, and her mother’s claim that a dingo took the child caused a storm of public outrage and disbelief.
The saga reached far beyond Australia when it inspired “Cry in the Dark,” a 1988 movie starring Meryl Streep. And as popular culture transmuted tragedy into morbid comedy, a misquote from the movie, “A dingo ate my baby!,” caught on, popping up in “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons” and other shows.
The reason the whole story became so well known, of course, was that in reality it has remained unclear whether the dingo did it. And over the ensuing decades, the human drama and the figure of the dingo, Australia’s enigmatic wild dog, have become entangled. Like the wolf in America, the dingo is a symbol that may mean one thing to hunters or sheep ranchers and another to scientists and nature lovers.
Now the Chamberlain case, and dingoes themselves, are back in the spotlight. On Feb. 24, testimony ended in the fourth coroner’s inquest on Azaria’s death, and the office of the Northern Territory coroner, which held the inquest, said a ruling would be handed down within the next two months. This time, the Chamberlain family hopes that the coroner will conclude, once and for all, that a dingo killed Azaria.
Lindy Chamberlain, Azaria’s mother, has struggled for years to get such a ruling. She was originally convicted of killing her child and sent to prison. She was released after three years and acquitted only after Azaria’s jacket was found near a dingo den.
When Azaria disappeared, dingoes were thought to be shy of people, and with no known attacks on humans, it was hard to believe one had been aggressive enough to come into a campground and take a baby from a tent.
But in the past decade or so, there have been a number of reported attacks, some disputed, and one unarguable fatality. Adrian Peace, an honorary associate professor of anthropology at the University of Queensland, who has studied the change in attitude toward dingoes, said, “The demonization of Mrs. Chamberlain has been replaced by the demonization of the dingo.”
Much of the change, Dr. Peace says, comes from public encounters with dingoes on Fraser Island, a nature reserve visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists yearly. Starting in the ’90s, minor human-dingo incidents started worrying managers of the reserve, and in 2001 two dingoes killed a 9-year-old boy, Clinton Gage, and injured his brother. “That was really the game-changer,” Dr. Peace said. There were calls for the extermination of dingoes on the island, which did not happen, but rangers kill any dingoes believed to pose a danger.
Dingoes are generally classified as a subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus dingo, although in the past they have been classified as a subspecies of dog and as a separate species. Physically, they resemble a generic, medium-size dog, about 40 pounds, usually tan-colored, with pricked ears and a bushy tail.
They do not have some of the physical signs of domestication found in many dog breeds, like barking as adults. They breed once a year, like wolves, and when undisturbed they have a stable pack structure topped by one male-female pair, the only ones in the pack that reproduce.
Bradley Smith, a research associate in public health at Flinders University in Adelaide who has studied dingoes, said by e-mail that experimental tests put dingoes closer to wolves in the kind of intelligence they display. “Both dingoes and wolves, being highly effective predators, are great at problem solving, working well in groups, and independent problem solving,” he said.
But they also understand humans in a way that wolves do not. They get it when a person points at something, while wolves are clueless or supremely uninterested. Dingoes are not as good as dogs, however, at following a human’s gaze.
Dingoes, Dr. Smith wrote, “seem to be a prime example of one of the first types of ‘dogs’. Not domestic dogs as we know them now, but some form of early dog that made it easier for the human-canid relationship to develop. You could almost say dingoes are frozen in time — as they have made a very good home in Australia and have been isolated for many thousands of years.”
Dingoes came to Australia 3,500 to 5,000 years ago, probably with Asian seafarers, and already at least partly domesticated. At the time, people had been on Australia for almost 50,000 years, without dogs. The dingo quickly became an essential part of Aboriginal life and stories.
Deborah Rose, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney who has done research with Aboriginal peoples and is the author of “Dingo Makes Us Human,” said the dingoes were a deep part of Aboriginal life. “The dingoes had names, they had kinship classifications, which makes them so unlike all other animals in Australia,” she said. “They had a place at the campfire.” Or even closer. The phrase “three-dog night” has been attributed to indigenous Australians as a way of describing how cold it was. However, it does not seem that Aborigines bred dingoes selectively.
Europeans, who brought sheep with them, did not share the Aboriginal affection for dingoes. They killed them as pests, and built a 3,300-mile fence to keep them out of southeastern Australia. The result is a confusion in even the legal status of dingoes. In some parts of Australia dingoes are pests, but in other parts they are protected. Their status can change with shifts in public opinion.
For instance, Ernest Healy, a founder of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program, said that in the state of Victoria in 2009, the legal status of the dingo changed overnight. “It had been legally categorized as an introduced pest species with pigs, feral dogs, foxes, and it is now endangered wildlife,” he said.
In the United States something similar happens with wolves. They may be endangered one day and hunted the next. Wisconsin, for instance, is now considering a wolf hunting season.
Whatever the outcome of the coroner’s inquest, and even as new science shows the ecological importance of dingoes, their populations are under some kind of pressure all over Australia.
Arian D. Wallach, at James Cook University in Queensland, said research has shown that dingoes, as top predators, are essential to preventing “breakouts of opportunistic species” like rabbits and feral cats, and should be left alone as much as possible.
But even protected populations are controlled, she said, by shooting, trapping, poisoning — what Dr. Wallach calls “persecution.” Killing adults, she says, destroys pack structure, and means the young are more likely to kill livestock or cause other problems. They are, she said, like “hooligans,” whereas in a traditional pack, “they’ll have jobs to do; they won’t be unemployed.”
The problem, Dr. Wallach said, is that from sheep country to Fraser Island to national parks, “every single population of dingoes that I know of in Australia is persecuted.”
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