Thylacine: Animal Dreaming

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The most important thing to know about the thylacine is that they are almost certainly exinct.  Also going by the names marsupial wolf and tasmanian tiger, the last known thylacine died in 1936 in a zoo.

They were large carnivorous marsupials which were in competition with the tasmanian devil.  Bigger than the devil, these ghosts are often compared to the wolves of the northern hemisphere in terms of appearance, behaviour and the similar niche they fill in the ecosystem.  This association would be one factor leading to their extinction. They pursued their prey, kangaroos, to exhaustion and found themselves up against the dingo which also eats roos.  In addition to competition for food, the dingoes also posed an immediate threat as it is believed they hunted the thylacine.

The thylacine was a scapegoat, barring the brunt of anything which went wrong on farms. Because of this, they were feared, loathed and hunted.  A relentless persecution was carried out and a bounty was placed on their heads.  This destruction of an animal which had once thrived echoes the severe impact the British had on Australia.

The story of attempts to protect the thylacine are no cheerier. They were finally declared to be a protected species on the same day the last one died, leaving us only with books and a snippet of black and white film.  This sad footage tells a tale of a lonely animal, the last of its kind, a pressure that none of us can know.

Sightings of these mysterious striped beasts continue to be reported in a similar way to those of bigfoot.  Sketchy film and ambiguous accounts fuel conspiracy theories and a cult of believers insist that the elusive animal still lives.  In the context of this card, my focus is less on whether they really are still alive and more about what this belief asks us to think about.  Do we see what we want to see?  Do we see what we expect to see?  How is confirmation bias screwing with our ideas?  What does it say about us when we project the thylacine onto other animals?  Where else are we experiencing a case of mistaken identity?

Dog: Animal Dreaming

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See also dingo as some of the themes will be similar, but with a tamer version for this card.

I find this card to be a bit at odds with the rest of them.  Every other animal is wild and the dog is an icon of our ability to tame.  It possibly doesn’t help that I’m not really a dog person…  In some ways, I find their loyalty annoying… Cats make you earn their love, they have their own mind and their own interests.  Dogs seem so focused on making us happy that they have lost themselves.  Although I can see that man would love a creature which both worships us and can be held up proudly as an example of the power of man…

Their unwavering loyalty may be part of the appeal for some but I like my loyalty to be justified.  I want someone who is loyal to me because they feel justified in it not because they have been breed to and no longer think for themselves…

In case you can’t tell, I’m not really feeling this card.  If you’ve drawn it and want better info, maybe try some of these instead:

 

Dingo: Animal Dreaming

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Dingoes appeared in Australia about 4000 years ago although no one is entirely sure how.  These wild dogs are generally ginger with white feet however their coat adapts to where they live and in desert areas it is more golden and in forests it is more tan.  They prefer live on the edge of forests but will go pretty much anywhere access to water allows.

Unlike dogs, dingoes don’t bark but they do howl.  One dreaming says this is because he ate very hot chillies.  In terms of food, they are opportunistic carnivores, mostly eating mammals such as rabbits, kangaroos and wombats.  They also attack farm livestock, making them unpopular.  Known to stash food, the dingo is prepared for leaner times.  They can be solitary hunters but they can also come together in a pack to hunt.  Like their colouring, this highlights the dingo’s adaptability.  Further, they are physically very flexible as well – they have hypermobile paws and a neck which turns more than 180 degrees.  It is thought that these apex predators may have been partially responsible for the extinction of the thylacine as dingoes were bigger and more adaptable.

Young males are often solitary and nomadic in nature and these seem to be the lens through which the dingo is viewed.  When i was looking into them, I found the words roamer, vagabond and the idea of the dingo as constantly on the move.  However, they tend to have a stable territory and breeding adults sometimes form packs; a mating pair plus some offspring.

Because of their similarity with dogs, I think their wildness hits people harder.  We see something familiar and civilised which then does not act as we perceive it should, leaving us with this emphasised savageness.  Our own clouded vision means this creature is misunderstood.

The dingo is also an excellent tool with which to view the difference between the historical British approach and the aboriginal approach to nature.  Dingoes and aboriginal people lived for thousands of years side by side in balance.  When the British arrived, we bought with us our familiar livestock; rabbits, sheep, cows etc.  In many ways these weren’t suited to the environment and they disrupted ecosystems.  Dingoes did kill sheep and other farm animals and soon found themselves cast out as a malicious hunter who killed for fun not survival.  We insisted our continuing to impose our animals on a land that didn’t welcome them and soon action needed to be taken to control the dingoes.  So we built a large fence.  The dingo fence is longer than the great wall of china and sections off south east Australia. Instead of working with the new land and the animals we found, we fought against them.  We tried to tame the environment we had thrust ourselves into.  We tried to recreate Britain and showed no respect for the world we were in.  This reminds me of the dragon, the European dragon being something that must be slayed, shown dominance over and the Chinese dragon being revered and respected.

 

Tasmanian Devil: Animal Dreaming

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When the Europeans came across the Tasmanian devil, they were horrified by it’s red ears and high pitched squeal and tales of a ferocious beast with huge fangs were spun. Despite being carnivorous marsupials, they developed a reputation which far exceeded the reality.

As the devil is a black, stocky animal with a bad smell, it is perhaps not surprising that they aren’t popular.  They have the strongest jaw to body weight of any animal and a feisty attitude to match.  When they are threatened, they become aggressive and this has added to their persecution.  These tenacious beasts encourage us to stand up for ourselves, to own our personal power.

Historically they have been maligned and seen as a pest.  Other dangers include being hit by cars, being attacked by dogs and falling into old mine shafts.  Despite perception, the devil is shy, living mostly in the shadows of the night.

Whilst they are nocturnal, they are thought to be most active in the transition times; dusk and dawn.  To help them find prey in the dark, they use their long whiskers, fantastic hearing and excellent sense of smell.  In terms of vision, it is thought that their sight is strongest at seeing black and white and that they see moving objects more clearly than still ones.

In terms of diet, devils prefer to scavenge, eating virtually everything and aren’t very efficient predators.  Whilst they are solitary creatures, they do come in contact with other devils at carcasses.  This role in the ecosystem, keeping the environment clean, is akin to that of the vulture.  Both help to purify their habitat, getting rid of rubbish and ensuring that bacteria and contagions are under control.

Turtle: Animal Dreaming

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Turtle: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

The other day I was watching an animal documentary which took the viewer through the stages of tortoise and turtle evolution.  The tortoise evolved on land and then moved into the sea where it became the turtle.  All of the land tortoises went extinct.  Some turtles then decided that land looked appealing so they climbed out the sea and developed into tortoises.  But these were not immediate descendants of the original tortoises, having been through these two significant evolutionary changes.

Turtles appeared 150 million years ago and as such represent an ancient ancestry.  Up until fairly recently, their populations were abundant.  Then we came along… We captured them for food, skin and shell.  We captured them by accident.  We destroy their nests and their habitats.  We enter their world with boats and propellers.  We are destroying them.  And we see across the world that the turtle is the earth or is holding the earth.  We see the turtle is a feminine creature, a mother goddess.  So how we treat the turtle is reflective of how we treat the world more generally.

On a lighter note, leatherback turtles eat mainly jellyfish so don’t have the powerful muscles and jaw that some turtles do.  Instead, they have a fascinating digestive system.  Their esophagus is lined with short spines that point away from the mouth.  This is so that they can contract the esophagus to push out all the excess water whilst also preventing the jellies from escaping.

In the past, turtles were an important part of coastal cultures and shown far more respect than of late.  The significance of the turtle is highlighted in creation myths and other legends around the world.

In terms of Australia, we see dreamings which explain why the turtle has a shell.  Some tell of a clever man who placed a shield over his body to avoid attack.  Because of his inventiveness he was turned into a turtle where he would always be protected, be invulnerable.  Others tell a similar story but the man in question has broken tribal law and is running away.  He hid using his shields but as a punishment, he would have to spend the rest of his life as a turtle, unable to leave the water.

For some aboriginal groups, hunting of turtles as well as preparing and sharing the meat has great significance and is part of long cultural traditions.  As well as providing important nutrients, the turtle also strengthens peoples connection to the sea.

Spider: Animal Dreaming

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Spider: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

Tarantula: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

“No one knows, incidentally, why Australia’s spiders are so extravagantly toxic; capturing small insects and injecting them with enough poison to drop a horse would appear to be the most literal case of overkill. Still, it does mean that everyone gives them lots of space.”
― Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

It’s common knowledge that Australia has some highly venomous spiders.  Whilst some are deadly, most are not very toxic.  Despite being very feared, they are an important part of the web of life; controlling insect populations.  They have been depicted in aboriginal art and one dreaming focuses on the spider’s sexuality and desire.  She would seduce some men and not others and this caused tension and jealousy.  To escape the consequences of her action, she turned herself and her lovers into spiders.  Be careful of getting caught in your own web.

“Women are spinners and weavers, we are the ones who spin the threads and weave them into meaning and pattern. Like silkworms, we create those threads out of our own substance, pulling the strong, fine fibres out of our own hearts and wombs. It’s time to make some new threads; time to strengthen the frayed wild edges of our own being and then weave ourselves back into the fabric of our culture.”

– Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted

Whale: Animal Dreaming

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Whale: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

So I know I’ve already talked a lot about whales but in the wild unknown post I focused on baleen whales so I thought this post would give me chance to consider toothed whales, such as the killer whale pictured.

There are 73 species of toothed whale* and as you might guess, instead of baleen, they have teeth!  In general toothed whales are smaller than baleen whales which is perhaps counter-intuitive when you consider the latter eats only teeny tiny food and the former is more prone to fish, baby whales and even seals.  Another difference is the baleen whale has two blow holes where the toothed whale has one.

Killer whales are an apex predator and are found in most of the world’s seas.  In order to find their food, toothed whales use echolocation.  This allows them to dive deeper, where the light is poorer, to hunt.  They are highly sociable animals and it is believed that different pods have adopted slightly different hunting techniques which are passed on to the new generation. Once they have found their prey, the killer whale’s strong teeth and powerful jaw grip on.  They don’t actually use their teeth to chew, swallowing their kill whole.

Killer whales have also been known to drive their prey onto a beach to feed on it which is a risky strategy as the whale can become stranded and will be crushed under their own weight if they are out of the water too long.  Perversely, they are not safe in the water either – if they cannot come up to the surface to breathe, they risk drowning.

There is also a theory, although how respected it is by scientists I don’t know, that whales engage in self stranding when they are ill.  Sacrificing themselves so that the pod as a whole is not infected, slowed down or hindered in some other way.  However, as whales have highly complex social structures, this can backfire; other whales may then strand themselves to try and help the first whale.  Regardless of the truth in this, it gives us an interesting and contradictory metaphor.  On the one hand we have the ill whale which gives us the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good and on the other hand we have the helper whales who are endangering themselves; who helps the helper?  We have a responsibility to look after ourselves first, if we don’t then we cannot help others.  The idea that if a man is down a hole, don’t get down there with him.  This echoes the situation the baleen whale mother finds herself in in the wild unknown card.

As we saw in the wild unknown, the whale is a creature of abundance for people and in dreamtime stories, the beached whale was a gift to the people.


* Note, the term toothed whales includes all species of dolphins and porpoises