Tuesday, April 25, 2017

At Last, the Final Secret of the Thylacines!

"For about four months, in the year 1874, beginning upon January 8th, a killer was abroad, in Ireland.  In Land and Water, March 7, 1874, a correspondent writes that he had heard of depredations by a wolf, in Ireland, where the last native wolf had been killed in the year 1712.  According to him, a killer was running wild, in Cavan, slaying as many as 30 sheep in one night.  There is another account, in Land and Water, March 28.  Here, a correspondent writes that, in Cavan, sheep had been killed in a way that led to the belief that the marauder was not a dog.  This correspondent knew of 42 instances, in three townlands, in which sheep had been similarly killed — throats cut and blood sucked, but no flesh eaten.  The footprints were like a dog's, but were long and narrow, and showed traces of strong claws."

-- Charles Fort, LO!, Chapter 13

When I first developed the idea of a Fantasy World in which I would set epic stories and novels, I knew it would have to be inhabited by many strange and magical creatures.  Oh, there were the obvious fantasy tropes of Elves, Dwarves, Unicorns, Dragons -- but it was more fun to make up critters of my own.  One I had in mind -- that I never really fleshed out -- I dubbed the Cheshire Beast, a quadrupedal predator that appeared, struck at deer, or sheep, or even people, and vanished again, never seen coming or going, impossible to catch.  It was named, of course, for the Cheshire Cat.  The idea was that these creatures could teleport from their world to ours, attacking, eating, and fleeing with little fear of reprisal, leaving behind only dead animals and frightened farmers.  Perhaps a pack, mobbing someone, could carry him or her bodily back to the Otherworld.

Some readers will probably say, "Hey, these Cheshire Beasts sound a lot like Blink Dogs from Dungeons & Dragons!"  Maybe a bit, but my main inspiration was Charles Fort's LO!, especially Chapters 13 and 14, which are concerned with strange attacks on animals and people by creatures that seem to come from nowhere and then disappear without a trace.  The major theme of LO! was phenomena that might indicate teleportation, so Fort seemed to imply such marauders were, indeed, popping in and out from Elsewhere.


A few weeks ago the subject of thylacines showed up on my new FaceBook account.  Thylacines, aka Tasmanian wolves or Tasmanian tigers, "Tassies" for short, were meat-eating marsupials, the Down Under equivalent of big cats, wolves and jackals.  Doglike in form, they bore tigerish stripes on their hindquarters and had amazingly long jaws and tapering, kangaroo-like tails.  Though they could lope like canines, supposedly they could jump like a 'roo if need be.

Also, they officially went extinct in 1936, although people have reported seeing specimens sporadically ever since.  I put in a link to a film clip of the last known living thylacine, which died in the Hobart [Tasmania] Zoo.  All well and good.

I started digging through my mass of old magazines, hoping to find a few to delete.  Totally at random I pulled out the Fortean Times no. 76 (Aug-Sept 1994).  On page 38 there was an article, "Just What is a Bunyip, Anyway?", an interview with cryptid hunters Tony Healy and Paul Cropper, concerning mysterious creatures of Australia.  "There have been more than 400 reported thylacine sightings in Tasmania since the beast's 'extinction' in the 1930s."

Then I pulled out a FATE Magazine at random, Vol. 58 no. 9 (Sept 2005).  "Devil Pigs and Dinosaurs" by Dr. Karl Shuker described mythical animals of New Guinea, including the "dobsegna", which sounded suspiciously like a thylacine.  "Its head and shoulders are dog-like, but its mouth is huge and strong, and its tail is very long and thin.  Villagers claim that from its ribs to its hips it has no intestines (but this merely suggests that it is very thin in this particular body region), and that in this region it is striped." [p. 62]

In an aside, Shuker mentions that "the chronicles of cryptozoology are fairly bulging with unconfirmed post-1936 sightings [of Tassies] both on Tasmania and in mainland Australia," which in itself would be odd, as the marsupial carnivores became extinct on the Australian mainland about 2,000 years ago.


"In the month of May, 1810, something appeared at Ennerdale, near the border of England and Scotland, and killed sheep, not devouring them, sometimes seven or eight of them in a night, but biting into the jugular vein and sucking the blood.  That's the story.  The only mammal that I know of that does something like this is the vampire bat.  It has to be accepted that stories of the vampire bat are not myths.  Something was ravaging near Ennerdale, and the losses by sheep farmers were so serious that the whole region was aroused." -- LO!

A third magazine (arbitrarily yanked from the pile) was Fortean Times no. 298 (Apr 2013).  Inside there was an article, "The Wild Dog of Ennerdale," that brings us back to Fort's LO!

The Ennerdale story in particular has always stuck in my mind.  I'd looked up hundreds of Fort's sources during my college years, but Chamber's Journal (the main source of the Ennerdale story) was not available at the OSU or TU libraries.  So the one incident I really wanted to flesh out the "Cheshire Beasts" was the one I never could find.

So naturally I read "The Wild Dog of Ennerdale."

According to author Crispin Andrews, the descriptions of the Ennerdale beast sound amazingly like a thylacine.  Even the "vampire" aspect fitted:  According to conservationist Nick Mooney "Any carnivore will start at the best parts, blood being the best food.  If it's a big prey animal (like a sheep) that's all it can physically eat."  Apparently grown sheep are too large to be torn apart by a thylacine, so it can only eat a few soft organ and lap the blood.

Andrews uncovered a witness description that said the beast had stripes on the back half of its body.  Voila!  It was a Tasmanian tiger!

How did a Tassie end up near a small village in the Lake Country, near the Scottish border?  Well, the Romans, William the Conqueror, King John and others had colisiums, parks, and menageries.  As the centuries passed, there were also circuses, zoos, and private collections of exotic animals.  They had elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, and hyenas.  Tassies are not mentioned, but "a thylacine could easily have found itself in a British menagerie."  I suppose.

At the end of his overview of the Ennerdale affair, Andrews lists some other cases of mysterious, ravening beasts that might have been thylacines:  1888, Winslow Arizona -- weird striped animal shot; neither the mountain man who shot it nor the local Navajos had ever seen anything like it.  1874, Cavan Ireland (mentioned above).  Nov. 1905, Badminton Gloucestershire -- blood-sucking beast.  1934, Tennessee -- animal kills dogs and leaps like a kangaroo.

Well, says Andrews, zoos lose animals.  I wonder how many zoos or circuses were near those areas, at those time periods.  How many such institutions even had thylacines back then?  How many zoos/menageries/circuses were near those places, in those eras, and had thylacines, and the thylacines escaped?  Sounds a bit off.

Finally, though, it hit me:  Here were my Cheshire Beasts!  The Tassies obviously saw what happened to the indigenous people of Tasmania and decided to leave, in a fashion unavailable to more mundane creatures.  They teleported to the mainland of Australia, then to New Guinea, England, Arizona, Tennessee, and I suppose they've been popping around the world ever since.

And maybe now, in a time when everyone regrets the downfall of the marsupial predators, they are venturing back to their island home, loping and hopping through the Tasmanian wilds with a big Cheshire grin on their muzzles.

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