June 2006

Kevin Arthur

nonfiction

Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger by Margaret Mittlebach and Michael Crewdson

I'm a sucker for books about quests for hidden animals. It doesn't matter if the animal is real (a giant squid or coelacanth) or likely imaginary (Bigfoot or Ogopogo), I'm compelled by stories of people devoting their lives to search for them. In Carnivorous Nights, Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson tell the story of their own obsession with the Tasmanian tiger, an animal that scientists say has been extinct since the 1930s, yet some Tasmanians still believe otherwise. The two authors, along with artist friend Alexis Rockman and other occasional hangers-on, traveled to Tasmania to search for tigers and tiger experts. The resulting account is a funny, engaging foray into Tasmania's unique wildlife and culture.

The Tasmanian tiger, which is also commonly called the thylacine, looks like a skinny wolf with stripes on its hindquarters. The resemblance is misleading because it's a marsupial -- more closely related to a kangaroo than a dog. Because the thylacine walks on all fours, the female's pouch faces toward the rear so that her young won't fall out. The thylacine is a carnivore, like its cousin the Tasmanian devil. Thylacines once thrived in the unique ecosystem of Australia's southeastern island state, Tasmania, but their existence became threatened after Europeans started colonizing. People brought along their pets and livestock, which the thylacines promptly started eating. With government support, farmers then hunted the thylacine "pests" to extinction.

Sightings are still reported often, and though most are easily debunked, many hope the thylacine still hides in Tasmania's dense old-growth forests. The government records the sightings, but it's really only private citizens who take them seriously and do follow-up investigations. In the book we meet several of these passionate searchers and experts and follow them on night-time expeditions. Along the way they pick up roadkill to feed to Tasmanian devils, and similarly nasty materials for the artist Rockman to paint with. He mixes up pigment out of local substances like dirt, feces, and blood.

It's not all blood and gore, though. There are plenty of cute episodes with pademelons, which are like small kangaroos, and wombats, platypuses, and little blue penguins. Tasmanians clearly are in love with their wildlife, which adorn all manner of advertising and art. The thylacine tops them all in this respect. One of the most vivid episodes in the book is a visit to the "Tiger's Lair Café Bar," packed with paintings, cartoons, and every other artistic representation of thylacines you can imagine.

In the end, what emerges from the book is an appreciation of the special yet endangered ecosystem of Tasmania. Many fascinating and bizarre plants and animals evolved here. The forests are filled with prehistoric ferns and immense Eucalyptus regnans trees -- second only to the California redwood in height. The authors encounter marsupials like wombats, devils, quolls and potoroos, and other exotic creatures such as land leeches and bats the size of cats. An early explorer wrote of Tasmania's strange wildlife, "This land is cursed… the animals hop, not run, the birds run, not fly, and the swans are black, not white." Remarkably, Charles Darwin visited the island just a few months after his voyage to Galapagos, yet seemed not to notice or appreciate the evolutionary richness. The sad fact is that dozens of Tasmanian species are set to follow the thylacine into extinction, endangered by clearcutting of forests and the continued import of feral cats, dogs, foxes, and rabbits.

My only quibbles with the book are, first, that despite Rockman's wonderful art, some photographs would save the reader from frequent Googling for more realistic depictions, and, second, the narrative voice is a little distracting. The two authors use "we" for themselves, which becomes odd in recorded conversations between "we" and other, named, people -- it reads like a horror movie script with creepy twins speaking in a single voice. Speaking of horror movies, did you know that there was a movie called Howling III: The Marsupials? Marsupials rule -- this book will convince you.

Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger by Margaret Mittlebach and Michael Crewdson
Villard
ISBN: 0812967690
336 Pages