Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Dr Eric Dorfman’s professional credentials would be a separate – and very long – story. The books he’s written and studies he has made, in themselves, would make a fascinating Midweek article (note to self: write fascinating Midweek article about Dr Eric Dorfman’s books and published studies).

In this issue, however, we treat him as the recently appointed director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and hear about his interest in the long extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus.

To do that I had to follow the tall, one-time Californian (but I think New Zealand has claimed him now) down into the bowels of the museum, shuffling between shelves until finding dozens of specimens of the taxidermists’ art. There we encountered our Tasmanian Wolf.

The museum has a stuffed specimen, collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Drew, sometime around 1891, well before the species met its total demise. It looks its age, poor thing, but the astounding fact is that we have one.

Eric lived in Australia for some years and knows a bit about these creatures. So why did he choose it to present to Midweek?  “It’s immensely cool from the fact that we have an extinct Australian species of which there are only a few in the world and exemplifies the importance of the collection internationally, as well as nationally. It’s cool on a personal level because I’m a conservationist by profession and there is still an effort afoot to see if maybe there are some left in Tasmania … and evolutionarily it’s very cool because although it looks like a dog it’s actually more closely related to a kangaroo, koala or wombat.”

The Thylacine is a marsupial and has a pouch like a kangaroo … well, the female does. The museum’s specimen is an adult male. Eric says they are more closely related to the quoll, another Australian animal, which is “more like a marsupial weasel”.  “From an evolutionary standpoint, this is convergent evolution with a dog,” says Eric. “Also biologically that’s very interesting.  One of my research thrusts is about humans’ relationship with nature,” he says. Eric has a book coming out later this year – Intangible Natural Heritage – of which he is author/editor in league with a team of distinguished authors.

Looking at this sad, stuffed specimen, Eric sees past the obvious and finds a symbol of “our coming of age as a society when we realise that doing this [making animals extinct] is a really bad thing.” He stresses that while this new-found consciousness is too late for some species, it’s not too late for many others.

He praises the work of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and its work here and overseas. “DOC is supporting other countries, including the United States, in methodology of setting up island sanctuaries … and it’s fantastic to be in New Zealand – even though this is an Australian species – from the point of view of this is a place where we have come of age in terms of the environment, and I hope we stay there. You can see why this launches into a lot of really interesting philosophical issues … and also thinking about where museums have been and where they’re going.”

It’s incredible, almost, to realise that Samuel Drew, Whanganui Regional Museum founder, actually helped, in his way, send species such as the huia extinct. He did that by trading stuffed huia (probably) to get an example of another species that, itself, would be extinct in another 50 years. At the time he traded for the Tasmanian Wolf, it was reasonably common but he needed it for his marsupial collection.

“No museum curator has ever intentionally sent a species extinct,” says Eric, “but back in the 19th century when species looked like they were going extinct, often, museum curators would run out to make sure they had them in their collection before anyone else got them … the huia was a victim of that kind of thing.”

The Thylacine was once a pan-Australian species, says Eric, with cave paintings to prove it was once even in the very north of Australia in Kakadu National Park. “By the time Drew was around it was restricted to Tasmania,” he says, although it was being hunted until its final (probable) extinction in the 1930s.

Eric says there is enough genetic material in existence so that, one day, techniques of cloning may be able to reintroduce the species. And so we looked at Samuel Drew’s legacy, part of his vision of a great museum that was all-encompassing.  “We now ‘get’ why he did it,” says Eric, “and we now have this incredible treasure. This is an amazing thing to have.”

There are lemurs from Madagascar and animals from all around the world, some exhibited upstairs, others hiding from the light below decks in the vaults. The Thylacine stands with them, an example of old ethics and philosophies and yet a symbol of what we are today. And if we do manage to clone them back into existence, will we look after them this time? The last word goes to Dr Eric Dorfman.

“If the Thylacine is never going to be reinvented and really is extinct, and the same with the huia, don’t we owe it to the species and owe it to ourselves to allow it to awaken us to the realities of what we’re doing to the planet?”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in June 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the author.

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