As we walked through the gates we were touched with sadness. It was neglected, forgotten. A tourist bus approached, but it didn't stop. In fact, it barely slowed down on passing.
This field, used in the past 70 years first as a naval depot and now by the council, has a very important place in history. As the commemorative gates proclaim, it used to house a private business known as Beaumaris Zoo, or Hobart Zoo, and it was here that the world last saw something very special. In 1936, in a small, concrete enclosure at the bottom of the hill, the last ever thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died.
The thylacine was a marsupial carnivore, the largest in modern times, like a dog with stripes on its back. By the time of European settlement of Australia it had become restricted to the island of Tasmania, having previously been found all across the Australian mainland. It quickly ran into trouble: perceived as a pest to farming (a culture that had arrived along with the Europeans), a bounty was placed on the head of every thylacine. Even the government offered £1 per scalp in an age when £2 was a reasonable weekly wage. Numbers dwindled disturbingly rapidly.
The last known wild thylacine in Tasmania was shot by farmer Wilf Batty in 1930, a legacy I am sure his family would rather forget.
But was the thylacine really a pest?
Some sources say that the animal was in fact shy and unlikely to have been the savage hunter it is portrayed as. One photo, allegedly showing a thylacine stealing a chicken, was widely distributed and probably cemented the creature's image as a menace to agriculture. You may well have seen this picture, as it has become quite famous. But it is (and was) the only photograph in existence of a thylacine with prey. Subsequent analysis has suggested that the picture is of a mounted specimen in an enclosure, the chicken placed in its mouth:
"The most significant problem is that this photograph fabricates the idea that the thylacine was a threat to poultry and, by extension, sustains the notion that it was a threat to sheep and human endeavour in general. In his book, The Last Tasmanian Tiger, [Robert] Paddle interrogates claims of the thylacine’s predation on poultry, finds very few substantiated reports and points out that it has been referred to in publications so many times that it has been accepted in scientific literature and its significance magnified in a similar way to sheep predation. Paddle expresses no reservations about the power of representations and comments on the way the photograph has been cropped to disguise the caged environment and suggest that the thylacine is actually raiding a henhouse. The first appearance of the photo a little more than a decade after the end of the devastating government bounty on the thylacine, when few members the species survived, did nothing to support the idea that its protection and preservation was crucial."
Carol Freeman. "Is This Picture Worth a Thousand Words? An Analysis of Harry Burrell's Photograph of a Thylacine with a Chicken." Australian Zoologist 33.1 (2005): 1-16.
Above: Cropped image
The thylacine received full legal protection from the Tasmanian government - which had previously supported the cull of the species - on 14 July 1936. Two months later, on 7 September 1936, the very last one in history died in Beaumaris Zoo. After such a callous extermination, the species was not even allowed a dignified exit: Benjamin, as history has decided he was called*, died of neglect, left out of his enclosure overnight and exposed to the extreme cold brought in by the Southern Ocean. The thylacine died, to use the classic phrase, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Little remains of the Beaumaris Zoo site, but it is possible to picture how bleak it would have been by modern standards. The gates have been decorated with steel animals, looking forlornly through solid bars, their enclosures barely big enough for them to stand. The gates were open, so we wandered in.
In front of the gates is the largest remaining structure, a concrete pit that once housed two polar bears. Inside is a tiny platform on which the bears would stand and, presumably, wonder where it all went horribly wrong. I'm not opposed to zoos, but you have to wonder how justified the original zoos were when you see things like this. There was no room for them to walk. By modern standards it was mortifying. Rachel climbed in to the holding pen to one side but there wasn't much room for her, let alone a fully grown bear. For a creature that towers over us they had provided a concrete cell in which an adult human can barely stand.
According to the map on the gates, Mike the Leopard used to live in front of the polar bears. Giving him a name seemed to give him a personality, and I imagined a happy leopard, perhaps a showman. I like to think he would play practical jokes on the public, maybe perform a few card tricks or shape comical balloons. But if the scale of the map is to be believed this luxurious cat, suited to roam and hunt over vast areas, used to live in a cage no bigger than a car. Far from the entertainer, he was probably a very angry and bitter creature, which is simply heartbreaking.
We climbed the hill, the polar bears now below us. Beyond them lay the remains of the duck pond, but in all other directions, wild shrub. The zoo is now a wasteland, contaminated from years of naval fuel storage. Such abandonment was curiously appropriate as it left the site to silence, but it made it eerie also. Trees stood in the remains of the lion enclosure, turf concealing walls on which eagles once perched. The view over the river was appealing, but it would have been all the better if the animals had still been there. Now, instead, there was just overgrown bush, the two of us and, in front of the small corner that once somehow housed elephants, a man from the council, burning rubbish. We decided to leave, partly because it was all very upsetting, but mostly because we were probably trespassing.
Beaumaris Zoo closed in 1937. Whether this is because of the loss of the thylacine is debatable. In its time, the thylacine was hardly a star attraction. It was either perceived as a menace or not worthy of protection - it was seen as "stupid, dull and uninteresting; a curiosity from a far away land".
But if it were alive today, it would be the star attraction. Reverence for this mysterious creature has been amplified since its extinction, which occurred just long enough ago to escape memory. We like to imagine what it could have been like, how things could have worked out differently. I'd prefer not to imagine, however. I'd prefer that it were still here. Not stuffed in a museum or pickled in a jar, but living, breathing and definitely not pilfering poultry.
Which is why, for me, further attention needs to be drawn to the fauna of Tasmania. Although this time not caused by humans, there is another marsupial endemic to that beautiful island that is on the brink of extinction. The Tasmanian Devil - a real creature, I promise - desperately needs our help, for an unstoppable cancerous plague is making its way through the population. We can't let it happen again, not on our watch.
This post continues at Longhand & Scribblings
*Name and gender are unrecorded. The name Benjamin was suggested by Frank Darby, a former keeper, and this name has been adopted. However, the daughter of the zoo's curator has denied both that the name Benjamin was ever used and also that Frank Darby was ever employed by the zoo. Benjamin's real identity remains unknown.