The Dingo Identity

by Evelyn Mousigian

Meeting a dingo at the Ann Arbor Creature Conservancy, my first thought was it looked like a dog. It was energetic and playful — bouncing about the enclosure, seeking pets from its handler, and tossing around a bottle of sweet tea like a toy. Nevertheless, it was made very clear from the handler at the conservancy that despite the puppy-like exterior, the dingo was far from any dog and behaviorally more like a true wolf, something reflected in its recent change in classification. For us, this label meant any hands-on interaction with the wild creature was forbidden, something not necessary when the very same dingo was considered a wild dog. The reality is, the labels and narratives told about the dingoes affect not only the way we see them, but the way we treat them as well. In Australia, where dingoes are native, these contesting narratives between dominant colonial powers and Indigenous Aboriginal ideology create tension around the dingo — what it is, how it should be regarded, and how humans relate to it. At its core, the colonial narrative, separated from nature and the ecosystem, exploits not only dingoes, but the Aboriginal people living and fighting alongside them.

My own dog-esque idea of a dingo is not one shared throughout Australia and they’re instead held as a symbol of true wilderness and, more often than not, regarded as a danger and a pest. The presiding perspective’s disconnect from the dingoes and the wild they represent is evident in their portrayal of the creatures. While once the face for ecotourism on Fraser Island, and certainly still a commodified feature of the place, a tragic encounter between dingoes and
two human children has made dingoes fall out of favor with the public. Following the incident, the child’s death was sensationalized and dingoes were presented in the media as vicious lurking safety-threats (Ricigliano, 2015, 4-5). This portrayal is one amplified by a long history of dingoes hunting pastoralist’s sheep on the mainland inspiring the dingo fence, a fence stretching thousands of miles across the continent meant to keep the dingoes out of the south-east side
(Bauer, 1964, 245). The dingoes that do make it across are punished for their trespassing and hunted by doggers, their bodies hung as trophies for the successful extermination and their deaths celebrated (Rose, 2013, 98).

The Aboriginal peoples of Australia regard dingoes quite differently, seeing them as ancestors. Though the specific details of this vary across groups, humans and dingoes are considered cousins and come from the same creature in Aboriginal ideology and they thus share a responsibility to care for one another (Rose, 2013, 7). This is seen in their interwoven lives, the ways they hunt and travel together throughout south-east Australia. When colonialists entered Australia, many Aboriginal people fell ill and died due to the newly introduced smallpox and the ones that lived were left at the mercy of the violent and intrusive colonial management (Boucher & Russell, 2015, 3). They were considered a problem in the nineteenth century colony of Victoria and ‘dealt with’ by being displaced into new highly controlled territories regardless of
culture or community they belonged, forcing a loss in connection (Boucher & Russell, 2015, 52). Though held up as a promise of ‘protection’ for the Aboriginal peoples, the territories were places of violence, exploitation, and loss.

As dingoes have been deemed a pest, the killing of them has thus been deemed not just acceptable, but applaudable. Their very presence on the land they call home is fought against both via borders to keep them out of the south-east side of the country and through extermination leaving them fighting extinction in a way that echoes the colonial history of Aboriginal people. With the arrival of colonists, the indigenous people were left facing countless deaths at the hands of newly imported diseases as well as the colonists’ desire to eliminate them as complete integration into the newly built society was deemed impossible (Boucher & Russell, 2015, 18). Hence, the solution for the remaining Aboriginals was to displace many of them, like the dingoes of more recent history, from the south-east side into specific territories. Both these occurrences reveal the state’s attempts at molding the ecosystem into one decidedly more suitable for them,
leaving its native inhabitants scrambling to fit inside the new regimented system that wishes to exclude them. While dingoes are demonized, despised, and sought to be eliminated, their human kin have faced similar rejection and violence. As Aboriginal people linked themselves to dingoes, regarding them not as pests but as family, colonizers grouped the two as well instead viewing them as lesser-somethings to control. Historically, this connection is made glaringly clear by retellings of horrific instances of police performing mass shootings of Aboriginal peoples’ “camp dogs”, dingoes sharing dingo and dog ancestry, as a threatening warning (Rose, 2013, 23). As Debbie Bird Rose, ethnographer of Aboriginal peoples, puts it in describing this incident, “The power and terror show us a darker porosity to the West’s human-animal boundary: one in which humans are animalized so as to be killed with impunity” (Rose, 2013, 25). Through this creation of a separate other, for both the human and animal natives, morality has been set aside for a narrative that endorses their deaths as net positive for the in-group.

Aside from and despite the dingo identity of a vicious beast, dingoes are, at the same time, held up as an ecotourist selling point and face for merchandise on Fraser Island (Ricigliano, 2015, 13). As such, they become part of the bigger scheme of a commodified natural world and serve to give a portioned taste of ‘wilderness’ to visitors who are likewise detached from the natural world in their everyday lives and seeking a glimpse at it. With their adversarial reputation, however, they’re kept on a tight proverbial leash in the form of extensive identification and monitoring of their whereabouts and behavior. Any dingo that steps out of line, so to speak, and displays unwelcome behavior towards a human is given a strike. If out of
chances and no longer useful, they are discretely euthanized; something Aboriginal communities protest against in line with their cultural responsibility to look out for dingoes (Ricigliano, 2015, 2). The state has no such responsibility and under them, their dingoes’ lives are summed up to benothing more than a product and source of profit. This comes together to form a narrative of domination that validates this degradation of the value of life– something the same presiding powers had similarly once demonstrated on the Aboriginal peoples through forced, unpaid or underpaid labor (Gunstone, 2009, 2). Author Joshua Bennett, when ruminating on the work of Fredrick Douglas, describes the relation between black slaves and horses as having the shared experience of being a “living commodity” (Bennett, 2020, 2). This experience of embodying a “living commodity” is also a further linkage between the Aboriginal people and dingoes having
been exploited for profit on their own land by the same colonial state. As a whole, this treatment is emblematic of the greater way these industrializing powers saw, and in many ways continue to see, Australia and its inhabitants upon their arrival and sought to reshape the world they ‘found’ into something profitable.

This contested identity means how to regard the dingoes they share a country with is widely disputed. Ideas from policy-makers and ecologists can vary on how to treat dingoes, but they can agree they should keep a distance, effectively separating man and nature. Many times it’s at the expense of the dingo such as those slain for crossing the erected borders in their habitat or considered too much of a threat to public safety. Other times, however, ecologists argue for the sake of the dingo, asserting it is for their own well-being that people must remain unaffiliated and give them space. Ecologists claim dingoes are debased by tourists and the food they bring to Fraser Island and have learned to beg and expect food from them. They view human interaction with the dingoes as a corruption of nature and penalize those that aren’t “dingo safe” and attempt to breach this drawn line (Ricigliano, 2015, 10). This is contrasted by the practices of the
dingoes’ other prominent supporters, the Aboriginal people who live and hunt alongside them as kin and have done so for generations. While the scientific ‘expert’ perspective would forbid this, the state doesn’t have the deep connection to dingoes the Aboriginal people do and what is a violation of “dingo-safe” protocol for one group is an everyday endeavor of the other. For Aboriginal people, there isn’t the same line between humans and dingoes, something true both ideologically and through their actions. In investigating a similar situation of lived human-animal relationships against a state’s detached mandates, Govindrajan describes women’s relationships to the goats they care for saying , “her feelings of relatedness to the goat she had raised was grounded in acts of labor that required her to align herself in relation to other bodies; an alignment that I have argued was saturated with embodied forms of affect” (Govindrajan, 2018, 48). This same sentiment I find reflected in the Aboriginal people’s experience with dingoes being a relationship and connection built from real shared experience. To penalize interaction between human and dingo is to ignore and discredit the very real experiences of cohabitating with dingoes that constitutes the daily lives Aboriginal peoples. The creation of these boundaries between human and nature is telling of the Western world’s own, in Rose’s words, lost “sense of connection” with “the living world” as the result of industrialization limiting these intimate experiences with nature (Rose, 2013, 8).

In essence, the governing bodies of Australia have both now and historically demonstrated a withdrawal from nature which has culminated in the violence, exploitation, and disassociation from themselves and both the Aboriginal peoples and dingoes alike. Such withdrawal is reflected and reproduced by the labels and narratives surrounding the dingoes. While considered kin to Aboriginal peoples, dominant colonial thought constructs various narratives about the dingoes as native species, dangerous pests, and products for visitors affecting not only how dingoes are thought of, but how they are treated. In the words of author Bénédicte Boisseran, “the core value of abolitionism is that all systems of oppression, be they against humans or nonhumans, are interrelated” (Boisseron, 2018, 4). This interrelatedness of oppression, though certainly not the only connection Aboriginal people hold with the dingoes, is one resulting from the shared effects of detached colonialism and as such, can only be addressed by seeing the wholeness of these affairs and addressing both human and dingo together.