International Travels of the Australian Canis Dingo: Part II

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

This is the second in a two-part series on the international travels of the Australian Canis dingo and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. For more information, check out Part I.

Daily Report for the National Zoological Park, 1908, 16 May. A box in the Smithsonian Institiution Archives contains original, unpublished documentation of the dingo’s records in the National Zoo from 1901 to 1925: daybooks, births, deaths, sales and exchange.

The document (right) is the daybook file for the transfer of two pups to the New York Zoological Park in 1908. This was two days after a curious letter was filed at the National Zoo, offering a home to another of the dingo pups on display, dated May 14 1908. The request was granted by return post. The letter was signed by Theodore Roosevelt Jr. At that time, Theodore’s family was in residence nearby at the White House, his father the 26th President of the United States.

The Roosevelt family was well known for their eclectic pet collection. Many arrived as diplomatic gifts and ended up at the National Zoo. Others came and went from Schmid's Bird and Pet Animal Emporium, 712 12th Street NW – not far from the White House. This included snakes (that ended up, uninvited, in the Oval Office) and a pig that had been smuggled into the Presidential residence under the care of a young Quentin Roosevelt. Once discovered, the exiled pig was transferred to Schmid’s Emporium, for sale under a sign stating: “This pig slept last night in the White House.” The only mention I have found so far of a dingo possibly relating to the Roosevelts is a sale notice in the Washington Post dated October 16, 1908, five months after Theodore’s request had reached the zoo:


“JUST RECEIVED, Dingo, Australian wild dog … SCHMID’S BIRD STORE 712 12TH.”

Letter to the National Zoological Park (detail) from Theodore Roosevelt Jr., 1908.¬

21st Century Dingo 

The National Museum of Natural History’s Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals has a contemporary Australian wildlife exhibit featuring a mounted dingo in front of a glossemer screen. Activating a button, the stage lights up to reveal an extinct thylacine in the background. The display is titled “An Extinction Story. What happened when these two predators faced off?”

Is the exhibit questioning the wisdom of humans transporting animals with them, across land and ocean? It does in fact imply that the dingo was responsible for the extinction of the thylacine on mainland Australia. However, this particular dingo and thylacine on display had been geographically separated for thousands of years. The thylacine on exhibit had arrived from the island of Tasmania in 1903, still in the pouch of its mother, and resided in the National Zoo, just a brief walk from the Dingo enclosure. The Dingo, named Clyde, originated from mainland Australia. A stormy 300 miles of oceans (the meeting of the Indian and Pacific Oceans) had separated the two species for thousands of years.

A screenshot from the the virtual tour of the Australian collection in the Smithsonian National Muse

The physical remains of many wild and zoo captives are to be found in the mammalian collections in the National Museum of Natural History – pelts, bones, taxidermy specimens, even hearts of central desert dingoes. The specimens have been preserved, labeled and systematically recorded with their provenance, or story of origin, often having lived as residents of the local zoo before reaching their resting place in the Museum.

Dingoes in the wild

A dingo inspects CEPS scientists' work during their expedition in the Simpson Desert, Australia, MayIn May 2006, a team of scientists from the National Air and Space Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies undertook a study on the formation of Mars-like parallel desert dunes. The field research was conducted in one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth – the Simpson Desert in central Australia.

The scientists had camped out overnight, and were staking out a dune on Colson track when they found themselves under the casual observation of a wild dingo. The senior scientist, Ted Maxwell, took a photo, methodically recording the co-ordinates of their location. The dingo was a scorching 37 mile walk across the desert, to the nearest known permanent water-source at Dalhousie Springs. Despite this, he appears completely at ease both in the human gaze, and the arid landscape.

The dingo is well known to Aboriginal people for its ability to locate water above and below ground. As such, they were (and still are, in Aboriginal communities) treasured for assisting human survival in remote environments. Archival records exist of dingoes leading explorers across deserts to life-saving water springs. These stories of survival have almost vanished from European history books, but are still evident on the Australian map, with many sites still marked out as ‘Dingo Soak’, ‘Dingo Rock’, ‘Dingo Valley’.

Celestial Stories

In 2014, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover crossed its Martian landscape, a surface the scientists had mapped out into quadrangles, naming locations after sites on earth with similar geology or ancient rock formations. ‘Dingo Gap’ is now the name of a Martian valley, after a location near the remote Kimberly quadrangle in Western Australia.

Within this cultural matrix, the dingo appears in a new context of exploration, place, cultural and ecological meaning. Here, Western cosmology is evolving, giving ancient celestial narratives the opportunity to re-emerge.

The valley on the Martian landscape is named after a wild dog, the dingo, who thrived in the most extreme regions of the Australian desert for thousands of years. They helped people find water, and their stories featured in land marks, waterholes, and star constellations–the stars appeared in the sky each year, coinciding with the annual arrival of the dingo pups. 

It is still possible to see live dingoes not far from Washington D.C. today. This dingo resides in P

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