The Guardian cartoonist who goes by the moniker First Dog on The Moon (and incidentally, is very fond of non-humans) recently drew an interesting piece on the plight of the Southern cassowary – among other things the largest, most intimidating avian frugivore on the planet.
They may eat fruit, but cassowaries weigh about the same as an adult human (55-75kg) and have been known to kill and maim humans. And don’t we love to cite that little factoid.
Let's explore that for a second. Christoper Kofron, in a paper available freely online, found that there were 8 reported serious attacks (i.e. those that required medical intervention) by cassowaries on humans. The injuries reported comprised puncture wounds, lacerations and a broken bone, with one fatality. In the majority of cases, the birds had been hand-fed by people, and in the fatal case the victim and his dog had been attempting to kill the cassowary. Cassowaries had also been involved in attacks on domestic dogs, though in most cases the dogs were the aggressors.
Why did the cassowaries approach in the first place? According to the author, “feeding cassowaries changes their behaviour, making them bold and often aggressive towards humans. Cassowaries that are fed become habituated to humans, subsequently recognising humans as a source of food” (Kofron, 2003).
The biggest threat to this species by far is habitat loss and destruction. But when we talk about the plight of a species, we have a staggeringly biased, almost surgical idea that if we spend money on breeding an animal up in numbers, we can save that species. Just as we describe cassowaries as dangerous birds – rarely referring to the complex circumstances in which aggressive encounters occur – so too we talk about the species being endangered rather than us endangering the species.
|Statue of a mermaid sitting on a cassowary holding a cassowary chick. This behaviour|
is not recommended.
First Dog on the Moon made the point on this cartoon, which went viral, that one reason we’ve not been proactive about protecting cassowaries is we don’t particularly like them. Unlike koalas which are portrayed in the media as cute, cassowaries are portrayed as – in the words of First Dog – "a-holes". Are we that petty when it comes to conservation? (That's a rhetorical question - there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we are, favouring "charismatic" species over those we find less exciting, appealing or selfie-worthy).
The cartoon raised a significant amount of public awareness, and the Queensland Government – having committed to close the onlycassowary rehabilitation centre – found $50,000 of funding. But it’s not a simple story with a happy ending.
First Dog describes the response to the cartoon here.
Apparently, the very same week, a veterinarian was instructed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to euthanase any injured adult cassowaries presented – directly contradicting the intent (unless it were merely a cynical PR exercise) of the cash injection.
In a very Yes, Minister manoeuvre, the Department stated it was launching an investigation into why thebird was killed, even though the directive allegedly came from the department.
Veterinary student Patrick Jones witnessed the euthanasia and associating negotiations and posted this account, which suggests that the reality was very different to the media spin.
The incident raises so many questions: why is it acceptable to kill first and reflect after? How committed are Governments really to protecting endangered species? Do we simply care less about animals that are largely out of site, out of mind until they hurt a person or domestic animal? And do we take what we read in the papers for granted?
If you want to help the cassowary cause directly, donate to the community for coastal and cassowary conservation.
Fixing the system is a bit more complicated than that. You can't blame Governments entirely. There's a reason they don't bang on about humans destroying habitat. Its hardly what developers, home-owners and urbanites want to hear. Its a wicked, as opposed to a tame problem, but surely were adult enough to be confronted with wicked problems in the breakfast news. That's a big topic to explore.
And if you’d like a handy survival tip, Christopher Kofron suggests NOT crouching down or curling into a ball when confronted by a cassowary: that will put your head and vital organs in striking range. Instead, you should remain standing, move behind a tree, or quickly move away without turning your back. And don't leave big piles of fruit around in cassowary territory.
Kofron CP (2003) Case histories of attacks by the Southern cassowary in Queensland. Memoirs of the Queensland Musuem 49(1):339-342.