This is a story about my time as the manager of Evelyn Downs, a large Outback cattle station in northwest South Australia.
When I started at Evelyn Downs, it was incredibly tough. The usual dilemmas: drought, very little good water or feed, cattle getting bogged in muddy dams, and bores continually breaking down. But for me, the hardest thing of all was to refrain from killing the dogs. I am an advocate for dingo protection, but was also responsible for the cattle, and knowing the dogs were killing calves was a very difficult thing to reconcile.
The station was about 90 km top-to-bottom, and doing the rounds every second day I got to see a fair bit. In the beginning, the dogs were a real mess. A typical scenario of which I am very familiar, driven by persecution. The dingo population was dominated by young, unruly displaced refugees.
Pulling up at a bore one morning I stumbled upon about a dozen young dingoes killing a calf. Most of them disappeared into the gidgee, but as I pulled up, five of them stayed behind. The first thing I realized was that my left hand was resting on the racked gun. Realising this, I pulled my hand away, but was starting to have second thoughts. I knew this particular calf and I was angry. I wanted revenge, and also felt obliged on account of my responsibilities as manager of the station. Contemplating my dilemma, I decided to sit back and watch. The calf was already dead, and from past experience I knew the other dogs would soon come back.
Slowly, the rest of the mob started to re-appear. The five at the calf had already started to squabble over the kill and as others appeared more fights broke out on the fringe. Still having second thoughts, my hand went back to the gun. Maybe I could take out the bad ones, the killers, and let the other ones live? But as I watched, I couldn’t decide who that might be.
I focused my scope on one of them, and when seeing him in detail it came as one hell of a shock. Covered in blood, lips pulled back and panting, I studied this guy for a while. The look in his eyes was very disturbing. For a moment I thought the animal looked mad. But after a while I discovered that this was not insanity at all, but rather a look of desperation.
It was then that I solved my dilemma.
All of these dogs had the same look. Some were aggressive and others looked meek and shy, but what they all shared in common was a deeply disturbing look of homeless desperation. No pride. No confidence. Just a bunch of poor lost souls living in a world of turmoil.
As I studied each individual they all had a promising look. They all had their own story from a traumatized past and had earned the right to live. I thought that if I left them alone, they would figure out who needs to go, and who would in time earn the right to survive. So I decided to let nature run its course and let them all go.
Through the coming months, I experienced several similar events, but they were getting rare. I figured later, that leaving them on that calf had already set something in play. Fighting over kills can get serious. I had found a couple of dingoes killed by other dingoes, and another that would have died from a serious scuffle. He was under a cattle trough covered in his own blood, with his attackers standing about a hundred meters away. Again, I restrained from using a gun (to put him down), and knew I should just let things be.
I’m sure many people have seen the ugly side of dingoes, as I did, in the early days at Evelyn Downs. But what I discovered was that this ugliness had nothing to do with the dogs. It is just a result of our own violent and silly interventions.
Evelyn Downs transitioned into a truly beautiful scene once stability and harmony was restored. Dingoes need their family groups in order to function, to be content, and to know their place in this world. Family is just as important to them as it is to us.
I remember one day, after - once again - restoring the flow of water to a bore that had been broken for two days, a hundred head of cattle took preference drinking at the trough, while the dingoes waited patiently in the shade. Two half-grown calves actually went over to the dingoes and gave them a friendly sniff. A truly wonderful thing to see.
As the dingoes stabilised, they established large territories and switched back to traditional prey. Ultimately, prey abundance determines the size of their territory, and through some magical natural equation, these parameters are configured to comply with some ecological balance. This is truly the mystery of large predators, and for all of our ingenuity, I think a mystery it will always remain.
Over the coming years we hardly lost any more calves. Dingo sightings became quite rare, but their tracks told me who they all were, and where they might be. In two short years those mad-looking desperadoes had all gone. All I had now were wise-looking and discerning individuals.
I guess dingoes develop wisdom a lot quicker than we do.
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