In Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, a museum video plays on a constant loop. It shows a female thylacine that had been bought by the London Zoo in January 1926, and which would die on 9 August 1931, shortly after the film was made. But in the technology of the 21st century, the thylacine lives on. [Watch the short video on Arkive.org.]
Such films (others were shot in Hobart's own zoo) are remarkable. Their subjects resemble flickering ghosts, pacing up and down, yet their physicality is certainly not spectral. In bright sunlight, one specimen is seen in precise detail. The mountain-lion head. The narrow, almost cetacean jaw, yawning wide. The lemur-like stripes on its hindquarters and the kangarooish tail, thick at the base and tapering to a whip-like point and which, I guess, must have felt as heavy as the wallaby's tail I once weighed in my hands while its owner foraged on the ground. The vividness of these images render their subjects almost domestic. I imagine finding one curled at my feet -- not such a far-fetched idea, since captive thylacines were often given collars and walked on a lead.
From the 1880s to the 1920s, a total of nearly two dozen thylacines were sent to London Zoo, a hub for exotic specimens, an imperial animal clearing house. Many went on to other compounds, in New York and Berlin. In captivity, these subtly strange creatures did not speak up for themselves. "It is unfortunate that only rarely did anyone take time to observe them," writes one modern commentator, "their tranquil nature did not arouse much interest in zoo visitors, or zoo directors, either." Their call was said to resemble the slow opening of a door, but their cells would stay shut. It was if their obscurity was their instrument of their own demise, as they slipped into the past tense.
Yet it was only in 1986, fifty years after the death of the last known specimen, that the thylacine was declared lost to the world. Even now CITES, the international convention on flora and fauna, qualifies the tiger's status as only "possibly extinct." In the last half of the 20th century, reports continued to emerge from Tasmania's virgin wilderness of sightings of thylacines.
In 1957, a photograph was taken from a helicopter flying over the west of the island, of a "striped beast on the deserted beach." "It was probably a thylacine," the Belgian naturalist and cryptozoologist, Bernard Heuvlemans, claimed. "An expedition was at once mounted in order to capture a specimen, which would be released again after it had been studied." But despite the best efforts of a Disney film crew and an expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1960, no specimen was found.
However, in 1961 a pair of fishermen apparently came close to capturing one by accident when it was snared in a trap. The two men, Bill Morrison and Laurie Thompson, risked ridicule to talk to the Hobart Mercury. "The tail was rigid," said Morrison. "The animal's coat was dark, and I could discern only one stripe behind the shoulders and extending around the chest." The animal was understandably maddened, reported the newspaper, although the sound it made was "rather peculiar, and different from the barking of a dog." As the two men attempted to release it, it escaped -- although not at any great speed. "It seemed to be a slow mover," said Morrison.
The thylacine had become a shadow of the past projected onto the present. In 1966, a 600,000 hectare (about 1.5 million acre) game reserve was set up in southwestern Tasmania, partly to protect any animals that might remain in the area. It was both a futile and an optimistic gesture, as if a space had been made, ready to be restocked with all the flora and fauna that had disappeared. Since then, the reports continue to be filed from reliable witnesses, practiced bushmen and retired university lecturers, going about their ordinary lives when something extraordinary interrupted them.
One couple, driving back one night after having been to the movies in Launceston, saw a pair of strange shapes amble across the road. At first they mistook them for dogs. But as they were caught in the headlights, they saw erect ears on large heads, unlike any canine. The pair moved nonchalantly, said the witnesses, "It was almost as if they were disdainful of the car"; as if it, not they, were the interlopers. Amazed by the sighting, the couple reported it to the parks and wildlife department, where an apparently uninterested official heard them out, then said, "Yes, it looks like you saw what you saw. Now, will you do us a favour and shut up about it? Don't tell anyone."
Such encounters stress the odd motion of the animals. One experienced bushman in his fifties was logging in the forest with three other men when an animal that corresponded with a thylacine – "couldn't have been anything else" -- ambled out of a tree, "as slow as you please... He wasn't in an hurry. But, then, they aren't very fast, anyhow." All four men saw it for long enough to observe its odd gait and rigid hindquarters; the way that it couldn't turn around like a dog because of the stiffness of its back, but instead had to move in a circle.
In 1980, a woman in her own garden found herself face to face with a creature which she too identified as a thylacine. It was standing on her chicken coop. "It stared at me and I stared at it. It was really quite beautiful. Sort of golden. It had a big head and stripes across the base of its rump." In this brief moment, both were transfixed. "We just sort of stared at each other." She called quietly to her husband inside, at which point the animal disappeared. When she went back inside, she was grey and shaking.
Many witnesses remarked on the animal's serenity and stillness -- "No wonder they got killed." Others claimed to have smelled the animal's pervasive aroma, described a century ago as that of an unknown herb. Some came close enough to look into its large yellow eyes. Nor were these sightings confined to Tasmania. Others have been reported from the Australian mainland, where video cameras captured dog-like animals ambling through the bush.
One sequence, shot in 1973 through a windscreen (the wipers occasionally get in the way), is perhaps the most persuasive, since it is a mixture of the banal and the potentially astounding. An animal runs out of the trees and across a road. It might be a wild dog, but it has a long, stiff and pointed tail. It runs on its back legs which look more kangaroo-like than canine, and in the sunlight, magical stripes appear across its back. Re-run in slow motion, the images seem at once both eerie and ordinary, something caught between worlds.