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Why clone the thylacine?
I was recently involved in a short discussion on the subject of cloning the thylacine. One interesting contribution was the suggestion that it is pointless to bring the thylacine back from extinction because it will have no way of learning how to be a thylacine. Some argue that without these life skills, it is doubtful whether the thylacine would survive in the wild.
I wrote in reply: "Just because they can't live in the wild (and we don't know that - I expect much is programmed into any organism's genetic makeup - in this case, predator instincts) doesn't mean they'd be useless. If all of the dogs in the world went extinct and we had the opportunity to bring back dogs, would you do it? Even if they couldn't live in the wild? There is actually a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest the thylacine made a good companion animal. ... I have no problem bringing them back in the context simply of being pets."
In fact, it seems most people are unaware of just how suitable the thylacine was for human companionship and there are a couple of excellent books which make reference to this exact scenario.
A gracious species
Col Bailey in his book Tiger Tales (2001) reports on trapper Reg Trigg who trapped a young female thylacine which was not seriously injured. He "managed to secure the terrified animal in a hemp sack. Transporting her safely back to his camp, he caged her in a hurriedly constructed timber pen. He named the young tiger Lucy and began to pamper her with every kindness, to which the wary animal gradually responded. A mutual bond of trust and affection slowly began to take effect ... Eventually able to feed Lucy by hand, she responded to his kindness by allowing the bushman to gently stroke her head, seemingly enjoying the experience immensely."
Col goes on to describe how Lucy became restless as winter approached and Reg eventually let her go. "Two years were to pass before one morning in early summer Reg's despondancy turned to joy. A mother tiger with two cubs patiently awaited him on one of his well-worn [trapping] trails. As if by instinct, Reg stopped short of the trio, and for some minutes man and beast faced each other, entranced, until at length Lucy turned and, together with her two cubs, walked slowly away into the bush. "Although Reg continued to trap the area for many more years, sadly it was to be the last time he would lay eyes upon Lucy or, for that matter, any others of her kind..." (pp7,8)
Although clearly the relationship was not as strong, say, as with a pet dog, we have to remember this was a captured wild animal. The fact it presented itself on a trapping trail and just sat there - with young! - is truly remarkable for a wild animal, and very much in contrast with the tiger's usually secretive habits.
On a quick scan through Bailey's book I couldn't find any more references to any relationship resembling that of a pet, however Robert Paddle's book The Last Tasmanian Tiger (2000) has references to 18 pages under the term "pet thylacine" in its index. Page 11 simply mentions thylacines were kept as pets. Page 30 mentions one being kept in a cage which was later poisoned by neighbours. Page 31 quotes Kathleen Griffiths as saying her brothers kept a thylacine they'd snared as a pet which was later sold to Mary Roberts of Beaumaris Zoo.
Social heirarchy in thylacine pups
In the context of aggression in the thylacine, page 62 reads "Overt aggression was not apparent in the litter mates raised for three months by Dick Rowe". Still on the topic of hand raised young the text goes on "'Bill' Jackson Cotton (aka William Cotton jnr) first noticed hierarchical behaviour in his hand-reared thylacine cubs, when he changed from individually bottle-feeding them, to providing them with milk in a bowl: " 'they used to sit around a bowl of milk like kittens, instead of like dogs tearing in all together, one we had ... none of the others would dare come near, they would sit around in a circle, when he had finished he walked off and then another one would go.' "These same cubs showed similar behaviour with solid food: 'If given a piece of meat the pups would not fight over it, like dogs. The one that grabbed it was allowed to eat it in peace. One squaky snarl from this one, and the others would retreat, sitting round him in a semi-circle, on their haunches' "Cotton's cubs accepted him in his role of surrogate parent, and although their movement was highly restricted, once released from their cage, like adult thylacines taking their cubs to water, Cotton 'used to take them down to a creek we had ... they used to love the water'." The text goes on to describe how thylacines are not afraid of water.
I find it interesting here that the thylacine is compared to a kitten rather than a puppy. Admittedly, we're not talking about an adult male as a pet ... yet! Although I mentioned Reg Trigg's experience of having the female thylacine with pups in tow appear before him as quite remarkable - I stand partly corrected by Paddle who, on page 68, notes three records of thylacines choosing to "display [themselves] and vocalise before human intruders". For behaviour in captivity that seems more agressive (though not in excess of similar behaviour by a dog), the same page continues: G Stevenson says: "'My mother well remembers many years ago  when her brothers brought home a young tiger ... & chained it in the corner of a room in the house for about a fortnight. They fed it on kangaroo & wallaby meat, & she says it used to growl & snarl if anyone went near it while it was eating'" Again - for a wild animal kept inside a human dwelling on a restrictive chain, I completely understand this behaviour whilst eating.
"Captive thylacines kept on dog chains on farms or in the bush frequently gave a short low growl or started 'grunting' to warn of a distantly approaching stranger - an ability for which they were prized and held to be markedly superior to domestic dogs. These pet thylacines, while tolerant of sympathetic or non-interfering humans with whom they lived, would nevertheless growl aggressively at strangers in their immediate presence. Arthur Murray's friendly, three-quarters-grown female ... 'would "squark" ... when a stranger came near it'. L. Stevenson remembers the four live thylacines caught by his father ... which would 'snarl' at the presence of strangers. Kathleen Griffiths recalled her siblings and herself, teasing a chained thylacine by poking it with sticks from a safe distance to torment it, and the 'nasty growl' it would respond with from the length of its chain." (pp 68-69).
Again, the aggressive behaviour is understandable in its context. What is remarkable is the way in which wild-caught thylacines were tolerant of non-threatening humans. I can only wonder whether thylacines raised from young would maintain an even more tempered disposition towards humans - especially if kept in kindness, and not treated as some thylacines were, with torment. Continuing on the theme of aggressive growls, "the only occassions known when the short growl was given without overt aggressive intent was in the play fighting of young thylacine cubs. Cotton who raised an orphaned family of cubs noted that 'they used to yap like little pups when they were youngsters' ... While most published records of thylacine calls are associated with specimens held in zoological gardens, nevertheless, a considerable body of data used has come from private records of thylacines kept as companion animals." (p 69)
Earliest pet thylacines - 1826
From here the book moves into a section specifically looking at thylacines kept as pets. After describing the thylacine's life cycle and familial relationships, Paddle remarks "it is these same, or at least very similar, social and developmental characteristics that make the placental wolf/domestic dog such an effective and rewarding companion animal to our own species. It should come as no surprise that, early on in European contact with the species, people started raising thylacines and keeping them in captivity. These thylacine-human relationships proved so rewarding that keeping thylacines in captivity was persisted with, amongst a small sub-population of Tasmanians, until the population dynamics of the species rendered it no longer possible. "It is not easy to locate nineteenth-century records of individually held captive thylacines, as pet-keeping was only rarely translated into publication ... but, starting from 1826, the first occasion when thylacines were kept in captivity, in the following twenty-five years at least twenty-two thylacines are known to have been kept as companion animals in captivity." (p 70)
Affectionate, intelligent, obedient and friendly
The page goes on to cite many of these nineteenth century examples. Perhaps the pinacle example of the thylacine's suitability to being a pet is contained in the following short example. "William Breton, from his first contact with a captive thylacine, in which he noted that it 'can be tamed with ... facility' was enamoured of the species. He ... defended its captive personality from assumptions about the species in the wild: 'It is said to be stupid and indolent; but this is a mistake'. Finally, fourteen years after meeting his first pet thylacine, he was able to obtain one himself and proudly brought it along to the Royal Society meeting of 4 August 1847." (p 70)
As mentioned, this passage of Paddle's book details many of the 22 thylacines known to have been kept in captivity in the 1800s. One such reference is with regard to Mr Gunn who kept three thylacines to 1851, and more thereafter, who noted "'my living Thylacine is becoming tamer: it seems far from being a vicious animal at its worst, and the name Tiger or Hyaena gives a most unjust idea of its fierceness'" (p 71). Other quotations on this page include "extremely tame", "quite affectionate" and "behaved just like a dog and ... got very friendly".
As noted earlier, Paddle remarked that "it is not easy to locate nineteenth-century records of individually held captive thylacines" (p 70), but he goes on to say "far more specific details are known of the treatment and behaviour of privately held pet thylacines in the twentieth century. Captive thylacines were treated just like dogs: they wore collars and were walked on a lead." (p 72).
From the wild to heeling on a dog chain in 250 yards
Apart from bringing a thylacine to the Royal Society meeting, this next account is one I find most astounding - again because we are dealing with a captive caught animal, but note just how ridiculously quickly this wild creature adapted to its newfound captive status: Quoting Graham, "Mr William Cotton [snr] came into the town of Swansea leading a Tasmanian Tiger, most people at the time were scared of the animal, and were amazed to see a person doing such a thing. ... Cotton ... had snares set about 4 miles [6.4 km] west of Swansea ... and ... one morning found he had caught a tiger. ... After some consideration he cut a short pole about five feet long, and to the end attached a piece of rope ... and with a noose made on the end slipped it over the tigers neck, held him at bay, cut the snare, and set of [sic] to Swansea leading the tiger with him. He had great trouble to get the animal to travel, but after going a few hundred yards the animal started to act just like as if it was a dog, and followed along beside him for the rest of the way to Swansea with the lease of trouble" (p 72).
A few hundred yards! One animal is recorded as walking with its owner for 10 kilometers on a lead in the 1920s. "Newly caught captives soon gave up aggresive responses towards their primary care-giver, accepting the parameters of the power relationship newly entered into: 'my grandfather caught ... them and took them ... down to Hobart into the zoo. ... He took one home and he ... had him tied up on a dog-chain and he used to feed him rabbits, in an old blacksmith's shop. And he walked in one night and thought he was back from him - struck a match before he was going to give him the rabbit, like - and he was standing up against the old tiger. He'd walked further over towards him than he'd thought, and the old tiger's standing there, wagging his tail, he said, looking up at him, waiting for him to give him the rabbit.'" (quoting Miles) (pp 72 - 73). In a practical joke, Alf Walters was "sent unsuspectingly into some stables, to collect a cow's hide: 'I opened the door. AARRR!! There's a damn tiger in there, chained up. I shut the door again. ... [Jack] laughed like blazes. ... He said, 'He can't hurt you'. He said [to the tiger], 'sit down and behave, boy!' And ... he opened the door and [we] walked straight in.'" (p 73)
Exceptional hearing leaves guard dogs for dead
In another account a tame, pet thylacine was kept "as a watchdog, par excellence, and would give a vocal warning of the approach of strangers well before the family dogs did so" (p 74).
Tolerant of children
A child, Irene Simmons, would play ball games near this thylacine and if the ball "landed on or near the thylacine, Irene would just walk up to the animal, pick up the ball and continue playing. The thylacine made no aggressive response or vocalisation towards her at all. Irene treated it as if it were a well-trained domestic dog kept about the house - and indeed, that was how the animal behaved" (p 74).
Again - note that the ball could even land on the thylacine and it wouldn't act aggressively towards a child.
Such a sad loss
In this section of the book, Paddle goes on to conclude with Col Bailey's account of Reg Trigg's story which is described above. Other references on the subject in Paddle's book simply make the statement that a particular person kept a thylacine as a pet, or wanted to do so, but Paddle draws his volume to a conclusion including these words: "For a handful of humans in the past, the captive marsupial wolf provided an experience of perception and friendship, qualitatively different from that enjoyed with our own species, but a relationship which apparently met similar expectations to those associated with the domesticated placental wolf. The quality of this interspecies relationship can be gauged through the positive comments made about these specimens, alongside the quantitative argument that points out that keeping marsupial wolves in captivity - not for sale or profit, but for the relationship they established with their human owners - was not a transient, passing, social fad, but something practiced continuously for over one hundred years, by perceptive individuals with a love and interest in the species. The privelege of living with a marsupial wolf is no longer possible. This is not just a loss for the present generation, but for generations ahead of us as well. We have all lost the potential of another species, seemingly so well adapted to integration and domestication with our own social structures and society. For this reason, I weep for my own species, as much as for the thylacine." (p 239)
Cat person or dog person? Neither!
In all seriousness, thylacines seem to me, from Paddle and Bailey's accounts, to blend the best of both cats and dogs. They are affectionate and perceptive, effective sentries which relate well with their owners but still cast warning at strangers. At the same time they seem almost catlike in being particular, patient and considered in their movements. I for one, no longer respond to the question "are you a dog person or a cat person?" with a predictable answer: "Neither - I love thylacines!"
I attempted twice to reach Robert Paddle to seek his permission to reproduce these extensive quotations from his book. After encouragement from third parties who suggested Bob would be happy to think his research might help broaden the perceptions of people towards the thylacine, I decided to publish this article. Thank you to Bob for his work on this subject.