International Travels of the Australian Canis Dingo: Part I

The cultural history of the Australian dingo and the species’ connection to the National Zoo.

This is the first in a two-part series on the international travels of the Australian Canis dingo and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Check back on Thursday, June 15th for Part II.

Perros Dingo (Dingo Dogs), 1960s. Illustrations from the Barcelona Zoo Guide Book.

In Autumn 2014, I spent six weeks as a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. My topic of research: “Representing the Dingo. An Examination of Dingo–Human Encounters in Australian Cultural and Environmental Heritage.” Here is a snapshot of the findings.

Dingoes probably arrived on the Australian continent some 4,600+ years ago as formative (perhaps inaugural) beneficiaries of human assisted oceanic migration. This shared human-animal history pre-dates other traditions in the keeping of carnivores, dating before the time that ancient Egyptians began sculpturing their pet hyenas and cheetahs into stone.

The dingo was a Cultural Keystone Species within Aboriginal society. They were deeply embedded within indigenous knowledge systems relating to water, fire and navigation. Dingoes were represented in ceremonies and narratives; stories relating to the mountains, rock formations, waterholes and star constellations.

Dingo pups were brought up within the Aboriginal camps, traditionally returning to the wild once mature to breed. Sharing the campside with human companions represented a transient phase in the dingo’s life cycle. This independence worked equally well for the dingo and their  human community. As top order predators, wild dingoes played an essential role in maintaining ecological resilience and biodiversity across the continent. Generalist feeders, their diet included 170 species. This allowed them to thrive in every environment from alpine mountains to the central desert. Conflict with livestock post-colonization, however, has seen dingoes eradicated from many areas.

Woman with headdress looking to the sideEthnographic records in the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives include albumen prints of Aboriginal women carrying live dingoes, wrapped willingly around their waists like blankets. The portrait of an Aboriginal woman (pictured) is wearing a dingo tail head-dress – a talisman believed to hold great power.

Despite 230 years of interaction with colonial society – surviving on the fringes of human settlements, traveling in menageries and circus troupes, living in zoos and semi-domestic arrangements, etc. -- no-one has managed to sucessfully train a dingo. Indeed, dingoes have remained consistantly unimpressed with domestication. The Smithsonian Institution Archives provided a wealth of information on this aspect of the dingo’s social history.

Dingoes breed easily in captivity, and international zoos often had excess pups to trade. Occasionally these pups went to private homes. Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature would get the better of them. Within a few months, inevitably, they ended up in difficult circumstances and back in the hands of the officials.

Dingo pup, 1930

The Philadelphia Zoological Gardens was the first western-style zoo in the United States. At the opening in 1874, the zoo had two Australian carnivore displays, dingoes and Tasmanian Devils. Their first guidebook is held in the international zoo ephemera collection at the National Museum of Natural History. This archive provides a rare and irreplaceable social history of exotic animals – original records detailing popular representations of animals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The 1878 guidebook entry under “Wolf and Fox Pens” reads:

Text from the Catalogue of the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, 1878

Record card for the first dingo to arrive at the National Zoo, 1901-1916. The Smithsonian National Zoo’s first dingo arrived in Washington D.C. in 1901. At that time, wild animal displays were celebrated as endorsements of modern colonial power – the live animals were given as diplomatic gifts to Royalty and Heads of State. In this case, the dingo was a gift from the U.S. Consul to New South Wales, Australia. The female dingo was “taken from the nest, in a hollow log, when very young”, so she had the advantage of becoming familiar with human company from a young age, and lived in Washington D.C. for fifteen years.

A  male dingo joined the exhibit, and a number of pups were born in the zoo soon thereafter. He is pictured below, within the dingo enclosure at the National Zoo, circa 1900s. 

Dingo in enclosure at the National Zoological Park, 1900s.

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