Finito, Alberto, La Musica

This was one of my mother’s favourite phrases, uttered when things had come to their inevitable conclusion. Had she been a fan of Douglas Adams she could equally have said, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

After three years of moaning, complaining and, hopefully, educating and entertaining I have decided to bring this blog to its inevitable conclusion. It has been an interesting foray into the world of social media, so different from the world I grew up in. The ability to connect with so many people from all over the world is truly amazing and should continue to shrink the world’s boundaries and bring us all closer together. Disaster and misfortune no longer occur in far off places to people we neither know nor care about. Even though we have never met them everyone is a potential friend, acquaintance or colleague with beliefs, hopes and ideas that are not so dissimilar to our own. Surely this can only help to break down our prejudices and barriers and make it more difficult to continue injustices and demonise people from other countries. With easy access to so much data each of us has a duty to be informed and act rationally. Irrational hatred based on race, nationality or religion can no longer be excused on the basis of ignorance.

Even this little blog has attracted almost 100 followers (modest, I know, compared with many others but intimidating enough for me when I think how many people are reading these words) and readers from 76 countries. I would like to thank everyone for reading, commenting and liking and I depart with one final request coming, of course, from another TED talk ( Wash your hands! With soap! Do it frequently! Do it properly! Do it now!

Hand washing alone has a dramatic effect on infant mortality. It can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by half, respiratory infections by a third and mitigate the spread of flu, trachoma, SARS, cholera and even Ebola. Regular hand washing with soap will allow 600,000 children to see their fifth birthday.

In conclusion, it is probably appropriate to finish with a line from Get Smart, one of my all time favourite TV shows.

Pausing to leave, Kubacheck utters the immortal words to Smart, 99 and the Chief, “As George Washington said in his farewell to his troops “Farewell, troops!””

Dr. F. Bunny


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Unnatural Selection

As a veterinarian, atheist and scientist I have championed the cause of natural selection all my life. It is a magnificent device that has driven evolution for eons, constantly upgrading and improving species to better allow them to adapt to their environments. Through natural selection we have moved from unicellular animals to multicellular ones to the incredibly complex array of species we have today, species that run, fly and swim, enabling them to find homes in every possible niche on the planet.

There is, however, one species that appears to stand above natural selection, and that species is our own. I have been short sighted and wearing glasses since I was seven years old. If natural selection had had its way with me I would surely have missed seeing that truck, bear or crevasse and perished long ago. I certainly would not have lived long enough to produce my own pair of myopic humans. Now I have a dicky heart and sleep apnoea. However, our ability to overrule natural selection once again affords me the opportunity to live on.

Every day we try our best to cancel out the effects of natural selection. From vaccinating ourselves to prevent diseases that might otherwise kill us, to treating ourselves with antibiotics when we are sick. From artificial insemination and embryo transfer when we can’t conceive naturally, to Caesarean sections when we can’t deliver the fruits of those conceptions. And it is not just ourselves that reap these benefits. We make sure that our friends do too. Many are the cows that I saved from almost certain death (at least long enough to make it to the dinner table) by assisting in the delivery of their calves. Ease of delivery (at least in humans and domestic animals) has been virtually removed from the selection process.

Will the fact that large numbers of short sighted, infirm, sub-fertile humans that can’t give birth, are passing their genetic material on for generations come back to bite us? We must surely be weakening our species as a whole, but who would refuse the artificial fixes that are available to us? Certainly not I. It does seem a tad hypocritical, however, to laud the marvels of natural selection while studiously stepping around it ourselves wherever possible.

Dr. F. Bunny


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I Do It Because I Like It

Unfortunately I can be one of those people who emerge from the gym feeling decidedly smug about the great workout I just completed and how I am adding years to my life through regular exercise and a reasonable diet. While it can be fun to rub my less active friends’ noses into all that health and vitality it really is just a happy coincidence. Perversely, I really wander around lifting heavy objects because I enjoy doing it. I tend to avoid hamburgers and fish and chips because I don’t find them particularly tasty. The fact that I am also doing things that are good for my health is really just an added bonus, and I suspect most people who spend their weekends running, cycling, and canoeing really do it because they love it, and those who spend their weekends lying on the couch with a beer and a packet of chips do so because they don’t enjoy being active. How else can you explain all those people who constantly take out new gym memberships only to see their gym clothes gathering dust in the closet after a month or so? No matter the intention, if you don’t enjoy it you are very unlikely to persist with it, whatever it is.

Unfortunately this holds true for me too. I have read no end of articles about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. I have attempted it on numerous occasions but find it difficult and don’t enjoy it. My current record stands at three days in a row before I let it lapse again, and not because I don’t have the time. Who can’t find ten minutes a day for a quick meditate? The person who does not enjoy it, that’s who. I would much rather take out the garbage, clean out the chooks or scrub the fish tank, even though I know the value of meditation.

I guess the key is to find things you enjoy that, by coincidence or design, are also good for you. Then you too can act smugly and pretend your activity requires enormous willpower and you are only doing it because it promotes your wellbeing.

Dr. F. Bunny


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I endured another rendition of Australia’s insipid national anthem, sung prior to the start of last Saturday’s Grand Final, and reflected on the fact that anthems are supposed to be stirring pieces of music, exhorting us all to stand together to defeat the common enemy, or some such jingoistic nonsense. Unfortunately Australia’s anthem encourages somnolence rather than action, a fact that is compounded by its archaic lyrics. “Our home is girt by sea.” Girt by sea? When was the last time anyone ever used the word “girt”? Since it is in the national anthem perhaps we should try and bring it back into the current vernacular? Just in case you are interested my house is girt by forest, while the neighbour’s house is girt by paddocks. I can see a massive “girt” revival on the horizon.

Unfortunately countries that have anthems with stirring tunes tend to have stirring lyrics as well, perhaps a bit too stirring. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt“ translates as „Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world“. And we all know the trouble that caused.

The French aren’t much better:

Aux armes, citoyens,     To arms, citizens,

Formez vos bataillons,  Form your battalions,

Marchons, marchons!    Let’s march, let’s march!

Qu’un sang impur           Let impure blood

Abreuve nos sillons!       Water our furrows!

The Spanish appear to have the ideal solution. No lyrics at all. Admittedly the melody could do with a bit of work but you can stand at that soccer match enjoying the tune, while feeling proud to be Spanish, and girding your loins for the coming battle knowing that you don’t have to rhythmically open and close your mouth in order to mask the embarrassment of not knowing the words to your national anthem.

Dr. F. Bunny

“Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world

Than the pride that divides when a colourful rag is unfurled”

(Rush, Territories, from the album “Power Windows”).


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Witch Hunt

I saw an astonishing program the other day. Apparently witch hunts still occur in New Guinea. When something bad and unexplained happens it is not uncommon to blame it on some poor woman and accuse her of witchcraft, after which she is beaten, tortured and often killed. While her family will sometimes support and protect her more often than not they go along with her accusers and denounce her as well.

Some of these accusers were interviewed in the program. All of them were men. Hopefully this means the women are too intelligent to believe in this sort of nonsense. The interviewed men seemed to genuinely believe in what they were doing despite the absurdity and cruelty of it.

Unfortunately it seems far too easy to accuse someone of witchcraft. Presumably if you held a grudge against them you could come up with something farfetched like, my chicken just died, point the finger and shout, “She did it!” And that is all that is needed. The accuser is not required to come up with any kind of proof, making it impossible for the accused to defend herself. If she survives the beating and torture she is often ostracised by her community and may as well have been killed.

It is truly shocking how ingrained this sort of nonsense still is and how horrible the consequences are. Still, cultures that support the notion of rising from the dead, water turning into wine and thousands of people being fed with a few loaves and fishes need to be careful about throwing stones. They should be setting an example by renouncing their own superstitions.

Dr. F. Bunny


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Run Till You’re Sick (Revisited)

After 18 weeks of running on my modified program (two weeks medium, two weeks hard, two weeks off for three cycles. See “Run Till You’re Sick”) I was retested and revisited the cardiologist. The news was less than sparkling. I appear to have sick sinus syndrome. The sinoatrial node, which is the structure in my heart charged with keeping the beat, is not doing its job. When I sleep the node does too. At times I went up to 11 seconds without a heart beat. Very exciting.

This is so exciting that the node has been sacked. Its job is being outsourced and it will be replaced with an artificial pacemaker, one that takes its job a little more seriously. I must confess to feeling let down, disappointed and more than a little annoyed that such a tiny part of my otherwise presumably healthy body can have such a profound and long lasting effect on my life. Woody Allen said, “My brain: it’s my second favorite organ”. My heart would have to come a close third, but I would be more than happy to promote it if I thought that would cheer it up enough that it would live up to its job description.

While the cardiologist thinks the running and the appearance of sick sinus syndrome are all just coincidence I find it a little too convenient that this should flare up shortly after completing my first marathon and settle down when I stop running. From what I have read of marathon runners an alarmingly large number of them have some level of scarring in their heart muscle. I suspect that something I may have been predisposed to was a little unhappy with the extreme level of effort I expended while running the marathon and decided to pack up shop and go home in a huff.

Apparently the good news, apart from not going through airport security scanners any more, is that once the pacemaker is installed I will be as good as new and able to run, jump and leap tall buildings in a single bound again, as long as I only use the mobile phone on my right side, avoid shop security scanners and give up contact sports. So much for Krav Maga. Maybe I could just give up running instead?

Dr. F. Bunny

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I Volunteer!

All manner of information has been published recently about the benefits of volunteering. As I appear to have a bit of time on my hands at the moment I thought I would give it a try. As part of the appeal of volunteering is to get out into the big wide world and do something practical I approached the State Emergency Service (SES) first up. I have long thought of putting my hand up with the Country Fire Authority (CFA), who do a fantastic job every summer, but my too close for comfort experience with the Black Saturday bushfires put me off that idea. Besides, the SES appear to offer more variety, cutting trapped people out of smashed cars, pulling trees off houses, etc. So I gave them a call and the woman I spoke with said she would pass my name on to my local representative. If they had not got in touch with me after a few weeks, call again. This did not strike me as the sort of organisation that was tripping over itself to get new helpers. I felt a bit discouraged with the lukewarm response to my offer and, needless to say, I have not heard a thing since my phone call.

Being a veterinarian I thought Birdlife Australia might be useful. I have experience with mist netting, bird banding and handling. I even joined up as a member. While I was pointed at a couple of subsidiary groups within Birdlife Australia the person I was suggested to email about volunteering my services has also declined to respond.

How about a nice conservation organisation? Unfortunately World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and others are all based in Sydney, so I tried Friends of the Earth. I used to frequent their shop as a student to buy my groceries each week and I thought that a regular spot helping out there would be useful. I filled in their form, registered my interest and have heard nothing since.

I contacted Kiva, the microloan organisation, as they need people to vet their loan applications. Thank you for your interest. You have been placed on our waiting list.

Perhaps I should try something specifically veterinary? Vets Beyond Borders run several programs in India sterilising street dogs. Unfortunately these places have a “no euthanasia” policy, presumably on some kind of strange religious grounds (as an aside, my wife met a Cambodian Buddhist at her book club the other week. She was most surprised to discover that it was okay from him to eat meat as long as he did not kill it himself. An interesting loophole that can be exploited by any carnivores who are contemplating Buddhism). Recently I watched a program featuring Luke Gamble, a vet working with Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS). He visited an animal refuge in India. The entire place was full of paralysed, emaciated dogs dragging themselves around on their back ends, with various limb ulcers that needed constant bandaging. The Dutch woman who ran the place refused to entertain the notion that most of these dogs were in constant pain, had no quality of life and should be euthanased. I don’t think I could work in that sort of hypocritical environment that promotes animal welfare without acknowledging that, sometimes, animal welfare can best be promoted through euthanasia.

I thought about volunteering with WVS. Unfortunately many of their placements require a significant time commitment, while others, like Earthwatch, expect you to pay for the privilege of helping them out. Is it not enough that I am prepared to forgo payment and cover my own costs without having to pay to work too?

Perhaps I am just being too picky but, I must admit, I have been quite surprised at the sort of lukewarm (ice cold) responses I have received. Most organisations appear more than happy to accept donations of money but seem curiously unenthusiastic about donations of time. Maybe I should just go and plant some trees?

Dr. F. Bunny



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Animal rights groups search Gloucestershire for wounded badgers as second phase of pilot badger cull begins


ANIMAL rights groups have started their search for wounded badgers across Gloucestershire as the second round of the pilot cull has begun.

The next phase of culling started last night in a bid to eradicate bovine TB in cattle by shooting 615 animals, Defra has announced.

Opponents say a vaccination programme would be more effective in tackling the disease.

Scott Passmore, from A Wildlife with Animals which is based in the Forest of Dean, said: “We started at Newent and at one point we were near Deerhurst and I have mammal handling equipment in the car and many badger setts can be seen from the roadside.

“We did not find any wounded badgers last night. But my view is this is totally wrong and if anything this is going to make TB worse.

“They should be addressing the real problem, which is cattle movement and bio-security on farms.

“We have been finding lamb carcasses left in fields, deer heads hanging on trees and we have been finding all sorts of undesirable things left in fields but unfortunately the wildlife is being used as a scapegoat.”

Activists operating for the Gloucestershire Badger Office patrolled most of the zone which lies between the M5, M50 and A40 to guard badger setts from cull marksmen.

Anti-cull campaigner Drew Pratten, from the Forest of Dean, said: “We had a phenomenal amount of support last night including people from Manchester and Derbyshire saying ‘we are here for one night, what can we do’?

“There are people actually guarding setts, people on lookout points and at crossroads where we can see what’s happening.”

NFU president Meurig Raymond said in the South West, where bovine TB is endemic and where herds are being reinfected despite farmers’ best efforts to protect the, controlling the disease in badgers has to be an essential part of any strategy to wipe the disease out.

He said: “Nobody would choose to kill badgers if there was an effective alternative in areas where TB is rife. But if we’re ever going to get on top of TB in areas where the disease is endemic there is no other choice.

“The chief vet has said culling over a four-year period in both pilot areas will have an impact on disease control. I am confident that these pilot culls will help deliver a reduction in bTB in cattle and it is vital that they are allowed to be successfully completed so they can deliver the maximum benefits.

Environmental secretary Elizabeth Truss said the Government is pursuing a comprehensive strategy supported by leading vets which includes cattle movement controls, vaccinating badgers in edge areas and culling badgers where the disease is rife. She said: “This is vital for the future of our beef and dairy industries, and our nation’s food security.

“At present we have the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe. Doing nothing is not an option which is why we are taking a responsible approach to dealing with bovine TB.”

The pilot cull will run for the next six weeks.

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Canadian beekeepers sue Bayer and Syngenta over neonicotinoid pesticides


Canadian beekeepers are suing the makers of popular crop pesticides for more than $400 million in damages, alleging that their use is causing the deaths of bee colonies.

The proposed class action lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the Ontario Superior Court on behalf of all Canadian beekeepers by Sun Parlor Honey Ltd. and Munro Honey, two of Ontario’s largest honey producers, the Ontario Beekeepers Association announced Wednesday.

“The goal is to stop the use of the neonicotinoids to stop the harm to the bees and the beekeepers,” said Paula Lombardi, a lawyer with London, Ont.-based law firm Siskinds LLP, which is handling the case.

As of Thursday morning, more than 30 beekeepers had signed on to participate in the class action.

The lawsuit alleges that Bayer Cropscience Inc. and Syngenta Canada Inc. and their parent companies were negligent in their design, manufacture, sale and distribution of neonicotinoid pesticides, specifically those containing imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiomethoxam.

The pesticides, which are a neurotoxin to insects, are widely coated on corn, soybean and canola seeds in Canada to protect the plants from pests such as aphids. Studies have shown that bees exposed to the pesticides have smaller colonies, fail to return to their hives, and may have trouble navigating. The pesticides were also found in 70 per cent of dead bees tested by Health Canada in 2013.

The European Commission restricted the use of the pesticides for two years and Ontario has indicated it will move toward regulating them, due to concerns over bee health.

Bayer maintains that the risk to bees from the pesticide is low, and it has recommended ways that farmers can minimize bees’ exposure to the pesticide.

Both Bayer and Syngenta told CBC News they wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit because they haven’t yet been served with it.

The lawsuit is seeking more than $400 million in damages, alleging that as a result of neonicotinoid use:

  • The beekeepers’ colonies and breeding stock were damaged or died.
  • Their beeswax, honeycombs and hives were contaminated.
  • Their honey production decreased.
  • They lost profits and incurred unrecoverable costs, such as increased labour and supply costs.

Beekeepers or companies involved in beekeeping services such as honey production, queen bee rearing and pollination who are affected and want to join the lawsuit are asked to contact Lombardi.

The Ontario Beekeepers Association is not directly involved in the lawsuit, but along with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, helped connect beekeepers with the law firm. The association also helped with the research for the lawsuit.

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Playing God


By Bridie Smith, Science Editor, The Age

The noise is piercing and poignant. It starts as a determined drill reminiscent of the “tut-tut” of Skippy – but delivered with a bit more chirrup – then accelerates to a pitch and pace rivalling that of a lorikeet. Then it goes quiet. That’s it. The last call, made by the last Christmas Island pipistrelle bat. It lasts barely 40 seconds.

Before the Christmas Island pipistrelle left the world for good, he was recorded over three nights as he moved through the rainforest. Using ultrasonic pulses of sound to forage for food, this bat was feasting on the fly: expertly catching and consuming insects mid-air. If he was aware scientists were tracking him, he wasn’t obliging them. More than 250 kilograms of equipment had been lugged to the tiny island outpost in the Indian Ocean, 1500 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland, as part of a desperate attempt to rescue his species.

But he was having none of it. He gave the harp nets and mist nets the slip, zipping over the top, night after night. And he ignored a purpose-built 15-metre-long tunnel trap, despite it being set up in one of his favourite foraging spots, a corridor lined with thick rainforest vegetation. His calls, picked up by detectors, indicated he was active. He flitted between feeding sites and reassured researchers with frequent banter. But on the fourth night, the synchronised detectors planted on his island home met silence. Without intending to, scientists had captured the last call of a species, made on its last night in existence: August 26, 2009.

Tasmanian devil. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)Tasmanian devil. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)

For scientists, the experience was shattering. Years on, many who made the long trek to the island are still mourning the loss of the tiny 3.5-gram creature. Rupert Baker, life science general manager at Healesville Sanctuary – a Victorian zoo specialising in native Australian animals – was on the expedition and remembers returning to camp burdened with the knowledge that a species had vanished for good. ”Everything on Earth is part of one big complex carpet … and each strand that you take away makes us a little bit more impoverished,” he says.

But for others, the pipistrelle’s plight prompted an uncomfortable question: should the rescue mission have taken place at all? And now, given the limited dollars available for conservation, some respected scientists are calling for a tough new way to preserve the nation’s threatened species: triage.

The concept, first applied during the Napoleonic Wars, is a way of prioritising the treatment of patients. Generally speaking, patients fall into one of three categories: those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive; those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive; and those for whom immediate care might mean the difference between life and death.

Christmas Island pipistrelle bat. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)Christmas Island pipistrelle bat. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)

It is a process familiar to viewers of the film and later TV series M*A*S*H, set in the chaos of a mobile military hospital during the Korean War, and that to a lesser degree plays out daily in hospital emergency rooms. In times of disaster and war, it amounts to a pragmatic hierarchy of care based on a patient’s chances of survival given the severity of their condition and the resources available to treat them. Applied to Australia’s native animals, it is a controversial plan that hangs on a reluctant recognition that not all creatures can be saved. Proponents argue that cash should be concentrated on the threatened species with the greatest chance of survival. This means someone is going to have to decide which species get on board the ark, which get left behind, and what criteria should separate the two.

The undulating hills around Healesville, north-east of Melbourne, are neatly stitched with vineyards and fields of dairy cattle. Signs along the road leading to the zoo’s bush sanctuary display phone numbers for motorists who find themselves helping injured wildlife; creatures caught in the path of urbanisation and industry.

Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria, is standing in an outdoor enclosure with keeper Monika Zabinskas. The pen, carpeted with leaf litter, houses a one-year-old Tasmanian devil. The animal was born here and, as a result, lives free of the devastating facial-tumour disease that has destroyed 50 per cent of her species across two-thirds of Tasmania. The devil, effectively a teenager, is showing a particularly independent streak. She squirms and grunts as Zabinskas tries to secure her in a handling pouch. Gray looks on, amused. The creature’s snout and whiskers twitch as she arches her neck towards Gray.

Lord Howe stick insect. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)Lord Howe stick insect. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)

This year, Healesville Sanctuary will spend $3.5 million caring for the most critically endangered species under its wing and managing captive-breeding programs. It is not nearly enough for what is needed, so Gray has had to make tough decisions. The first was to exclude Australia’s threatened native fish and native insect species from the program. ”We’re not guaranteeing we can save every fish and every insect,” she says matter-of-factly. ”The fish are not our expertise. And the insects; we just don’t know enough to know how dire the situation is.”

Instead, the zoo has promised that no Victorian land-based vertebrate species will go extinct on its watch. Within these parameters, the organisation will focus its conservation efforts on 20 species, each listed as threatened, each found only in Australia’s south-eastern states. It is a limited form of triage. ”Our promise is that no species will go extinct, so where do we work?” says Gray. “We work right at that tipping point. We work with the animals on the brink of extinction.”

But is it enough? Australia’s animal extinction rate is among the worst in the world; we are now losing one mammal every 20 to 30 years and one bird a decade. More than 1800 species and ecological communities are listed as threatened nationally. Against this decline is a patchwork of funding: some state, some federal, some from the private sector. None of it adds up to the estimated $100 million a year required to stop threatened Australian plants and animals from vanishing. Yet it has been estimated that up to three times as many threatened species could be preserved if funding was allocated using what some argue is a more rational approach.

Corroboree frog. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)Corroboree frog. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)

Hugh Possingham remembers when the penny dropped for him. Then an academic with the University of Adelaide, he was in Canberra in 1999 in a meeting with the federal government’s threatened species unit when it dawned on him that funds were being allocated to species with no real hope of rehabilitation.

Possingham, now with the University of Queensland and a director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, wondered if there was a better way. So he asked. ”People were very hostile,” he recalls. The main concern was that it meant conceding defeat – admitting that some species were beyond saving. “I said, ‘Well, you are giving up on species that are not threatened.’ It’s an argument that has gone back and forward ever since.”

A birdwatcher since the age of 12, he is a vocal advocate of species triage as a means of keeping Australia’s ecosystems diverse and robust. But he argues that tackling a list of already marginal species from the top down is futile. “We should pick winners rather than struggling away with the ones on their last legs,” he says. Rather than concentrating conservation efforts at the “tipping point”, Possingham advocates focusing on ensuring creatures don’t make the threatened list.

Southern cassowary. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)Southern cassowary. (Illustration by Joe Benke.)

Possingham is one of many who believe the Christmas Island pipistrelle’s rescue mission arrived too late to have any realistic chance of success. Widespread when it was first described in 1900, the bats first showed signs of decline in 1994, thanks to a combination of disease and introduced species including the yellow crazy ant, common wolf snake and black rat. The yellow crazy ant invaded the roosting spots of the bats which, being creatures of habit, do not relocate; returning microbats were sprayed with formic acid by the ants and eaten alive. The snake and rat, meanwhile, preyed on the bat, which had evolved free of tree-climbing predators.

Scientists were on the case but powerless to act without the authority of government. The pipistrelle, one of Australia’s smallest bats and the only microbat on Christmas Island, was listed as endangered in 2001, then critically endangered in 2006. By the following year, the bat was effectively on life support. But a rescue mission was only given the nod in July 2009 – by which stage there were as few as 20 bats left. For many, the pipistrelle was already a lost cause.

One of the most haunting exhibits at Healesville Sanctuary is an empty enclosure – or it might as well be. Among the native vegetation is a rust-coloured silhouette of a thylacine. Standing sideways, with its trademark stripes fanning out from the shoulder blades to the base of the tail, the metal sculpture is a silent reminder of what has been lost. Hunted almost to extinction, the last thylacine died at Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936.

In the quiet hours before dawn, Gray sometimes lies awake and thinks about the thylacine, and about its closest living relative, the Tasmanian devil. ”I worry that one day I’ll be holding a Tasmanian devil in my hands,” she confided during a 2012 Melbourne TED Talk. ”He’ll be old. His fur will be grey. Patches might be missing. His nose will be dull and cracked.” And he will not be just any devil. “He just might be the last Tasmanian devil on the planet,” she says to the now silent audience. “And after I have taken that decision [to euthanase], they won’t exist any more.”

That said, the devil has one big asset in its battle for life: people like devils. It is easier for people to relate to a fellow mammal than to an insect. When the sanctuary’s teenage devil lets out her revving growls and blood-curdling screeches, it’s near impossible not to attach a personality to her behaviour. Her name, Mulana, is a Wurundjeri word meaning spirit.

Research shows that so-called flagship species – namely large mammals with forward-looking eyes – have the greatest marketing appeal and are most commonly used by non-government organisations to raise money for conservation; think the World Wildlife Fund panda. In human triage it would be morally abhorrent to administer care on the basis of affection or appearance, but in animal triage, looks, or at least charm, count.

Consider the critically endangered Baw Baw frog. For unknown reasons, the drab-looking amphibian with mottled brown-black skin suffered a population decline of 98 per cent between 1993 and 2008 in its southern Victorian habitat. Their numbers have slid even further in the past two years, with fewer than 2500 individuals left in the wild. In 2012, the Victorian government pulled up to $20,000 in funding for wild population surveys. Zoos Victoria has stepped in to allow the annual surveys to continue. But it does nothing to arrest the decline.

Compare the Baw Baw’s plight with that of another amphibian, the striking southern corroboree frog. With its butter-yellow and raven-black markings, it often gets described as charismatic. Its appeal is only enhanced by the fact it doesn’t hop (frog-like) but clambers around its mossy habitat in NSW’s Snowy Mountains. Like the Tasmanian devil, it has a fatal disease to contend with: a highly infectious fungal condition called chytridiomycosis that, like the devil’s tumour, has baffled scientists. Listed as critically endangered, there are fewer than 100 remaining in the wild and its alpine home is shrinking as the planet warms. Despite the obstacles, the black and buttercup beauty receives a combined $350,000 a year in conservation funding from five groups, including the NSW government.

But should a frog (albeit a pretty one) with a vanishing alpine home and a tenuous grip on survival have such a slice of the limited cash allocated to saving threatened species? Should a Tasmanian devil with a population decimated by a so-far incurable cancer be allowed to suck up so much of the conservation dollar, beautiful eyes or not?

The devil, however, has another advantage: its contribution to its society. When you consider the role played by any given species in the broader ecosystem, some creatures really are more equal than others. For the devil, Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial, its position as a top-order predator makes it a keystone in the finely tuned ecosystem. Sitting at the top of the food chain, such species keep every other one in check, stifling the impact of introduced species such as foxes and preventing herbivores such as wombats and wallabies from eating out the habitat faster than it can regenerate.

On this basis alone – its unique role in its environment – the pipistrelle might have had trouble getting aboard the ark. Bats have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, at least 65 million years. Australia has about 75 types of native bat and microbat. Losing the Christmas Island pipistrelle was not going to cripple the local ecosystem.

Not so the endangered southern cassowary. Despite bad press about its antisocial behaviour (the imposing flightless bird has been known to attack and, on at least one occasion, kill humans), it is a vital seed distributor for 238 plants and trees in its north Queensland rainforest home. It is also the only representative of its subspecies on the continent. While habitat loss, cyclones, cars and dogs have reduced its numbers to less than 1000 in the wild – largely concentrated around Mission Beach, Cooktown and on Cape York – a medley of local, state and national governments are working with community and indigenous groups to turn things around for the giant bird.

That said, the greatest contributors to the health of an ecosystem still frequently miss out on conservation attention. A federal government committee told a senate inquiry last year that mammals, birds and flowering plants were represented in greater numbers in conservation efforts than animals that literally have never grown a backbone. Non-flowering plants, which play a vital role in ecosystems and biodiversity, are simply overlooked.

The prehistoric-looking Lord Howe Island stick insect is an unusual invertebrate, in that it is listed nationally and internationally as critically endangered. It also has a dedicated captive breeding program. Not all threatened insects are so lucky. ”Invertebrate animals are 95 per cent of all animal biodiversity but very few invertebrate are listed as threatened species, even though it is likely that many species would qualify for listing if nominated,” the threatened-species committee told the inquiry.

Hugh Possingham believes that rather than assessing bats, frogs and Tasmanian devils according to the odds of them vanishing from the planet, governments should manage biodiversity by weighing up the cost and chances of success against the unique nature, or taxonomic distinctiveness, of the animal. Echidnas and platypus score highly on this taxonomic scale, while a medium-sized wallaby would get a low score given the variety of members in its family tree.

It sounds drastic. But for Possingham, this is how M*A*S*H medics make their life-and-death decisions. ”Biodiversity is being lost at roughly a hundred to a thousand times the natural rate,” he says, almost in exasperation. ”If we are losing species at up to a thousand times the natural extinction rate, then we are effectively in a war zone.”

Opponents say it is not that simple, and that triage amounts to assisted, unnatural selection. The Austral-asian Bat Society argues that no one has the right to play God. The independent, non-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy maintains that if funds are invested correctly, we should be able to save everything. Threatened-species scientists Deborah Ashworth and Todd Soderquist argue that applying triage to animals and even plants risks placing the most feasible and affordable projects at the top of the list, while letting the more complicated, long-term or expensive slide to the bottom. ”The simplicity of this approach is very seductive,” they warned in their senate submission.

But governments are coming around to Possingham’s way of thinking. In 2005, Queensland was the first state to introduce a triage test, called Back on Track. The logic underpinning the plan was to recover the greatest number of threatened species. Similarly, Tasmania has focused on 171 threatened species it says can be saved over 50 years at a cost of $155 million. And across the Tasman, New Zealand has identified 700 species in decline and prioritised 300 of those most likely to benefit from intervention.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority has made its own list; starting with 2000 species, its focus over the past five years has narrowed to less than 70. And in NSW, where almost a third of native mammals, 28 per cent of birds, 18 per cent of reptiles and 13 per cent of plants are threatened, the state government has signed up to prioritise 967 threatened species.

Australia’s first threatened-species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, took up his post in July. Among his tasks is to draw up a list of threatened species most likely to benefit from intervention. “I trained as an economist, so I think of the opportunity cost of everything,” he says. “And there are some species that we are spending a lot more on.”

What, then, to make of the Tasmanian devil? An army of scientists is dedicated to saving the species. Captive breeding programs are well established on the mainland, and small islands off Tasmania have been quarantined for healthy devils. But will science deliver a cure in time? Or, more to the point, should we keep investing in the hope that it might? Granted, the devil’s public appeal will keep the dollars dribbling in, even as its population dwindles. But are we taking finite

finances away from another animal that is will score higher on the triage test? Has the devil earned its place on the ark? For Jenny Gray, the answer is clear. ”We won’t walk away,” she says. “It may be a hopeless cause, but it’s our hopeless cause.”

At the sanctuary, I bring the young devil’s swaddled body closer to mine. I open my forearms a little and spread my fingers wide to support the folds of blanket so she can prop her chin on the edge and watch as keepers prepare her bottle. Her weight is satisfying. Not heavy enough to create strain, but not so light as to seem less than substantial. I know she is there. I can feel her move. Her head bobs like one of those toys on a car dashboard as she sniffs the air with the matt-brown nose at the end of her whiskered snout.

So what say we? Does she get a berth?


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