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A rare animal faces cancer threat

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A female Tasmanian Devil with her young at the Mole Creek Wildlife Reserve, 60 km east of Launceston in Tasmania in this 2003 file photo.
A female Tasmanian Devil with her young at the Mole Creek Wildlife Reserve, 60 km east of Launceston in Tasmania in this 2003 file photo.

Terry Nutkins

Its name gives the Tasmanian Devil a bad reputation

London: Sadly, some animals have had the misfortune of being given a name that puts fear into the minds of human beings.

Along with the alligator snapping turtle and the laughing hyena, the Tasmanian Devil is one such creature.

It is not only the name that gives the Tasmanian Devil a bad reputation. It makes a lot of different noises, in particular one long, ghostly screech, which heard at night, can be terrifying to the uninitiated. And when it opens its mouth, it's got an impressive array of teeth.

Although this is purely a facial expression it could almost be a smile any God-fearing person would run miles from it.

But now more than ever, the Tasmanian Devil needs our love. For the past 10 years, the fox-sized devils have been under threat from a form of facial cancer. By last December, the disease had been found in 56 per cent of Tasmania. Six hundred years ago, they covered the whole of Australia; now they are native only to Tasmania, and fewer than 75,000 are thought to remain down by 40 per cent to 50 per cent from the figure a decade ago.

The University of Tasmania is hosting a conference on the spread of the facial tumour disease, and considering the proposal to establish healthy populations on offshore islands.

This is a good thing. We must not let the devil's fearsome reputation hold us back from taking an interest. I have seen devils in the wild, when my headlights picked out a pair of sparkling eyes and a quick gait. It is a beautiful animal.

It's got a very pretty head (as long as it doesn't open its mouth) almost weasel-like, with a narrow snout, and has soft, intelligent eyes.

The devil is a brave animal, a survivor, and it does a lot of good. It goes around clearing everything up bones, fur, the lot.

It doesn't let things rot. It has a varied palate. It will even eat maggots from the behinds of sheep.

It eats berries and fish, too, and I think an animal like that needs to be given all the support it can get in the face of a disastrous disease.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007


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