Portrait of Benjamin, a Thylacine. And also, housekeeping.

July 30th, 2009 6:28 pm by Kelly Garbato

Those of you who do your blog reading the old-fashioned way – i.e., by actually visiting said blogs (how November 2008!) – have probably been admiring easyVegan’s new look for a few days now. (If you’re reading this on MySpace or through Bloglines, Google Reader or the like, you’re missing out!) Throughout June and into July, I was hard at work on a series of new banner graphics for the site. I finished them a few weeks ago, but Shane only got around to adding them to the site on Monday. (In his defense, they required some programming magic to properly work their mojo.)

So far, there are 77 images, set to display randomly and rotate every 90 minutes. The majority are work safe, but if you happen to draw a swear word or naughty image, there’s a handy-dandy “Reload Banner” button located in the sidebar, right above the search box. Don’t say I never did anything for ya.

You can find out more about each image, as well as the motivation behind the project, on the Banner Credits page. Not to rehash what I wrote over there, but I was tired of the blog’s old look and name; the old banner image was so plain! I wasn’t keen on the idea of up and moving the site, though, so I figured a face lift was in order. Spiff things up, you know? I didn’t change a whole lot – just the banner, really, and I also simplified the background image so the site wouldn’t look overly cluttered and busy – but I love the result. The new banners, which are primarily comprised of photos and artwork I already enjoyed, are so shiny and pretty! I’ve already cycled through a few clicks of the “Reload” button, just to see what would pop up. Ahem.

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Karma, in particular, has an interesting back story. The animal depicted on the banner is a Thylacine – a Tasmanian Tiger. Or rather, it’s a picture of a sculpture of a Thylacine. The sculpture is (was?) part of a traveling exhibit called Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale, which Shane and I saw at the Kansas City Art Institute’s Artspace in December 2006. Cryptozoology is the study of cryptids; a cryptid being an animal thought – but not proven – to exist. You know, like mermaids, Bigfoot, Yeti, etc.

Cryptozoology is more Shane’s kind of thing. (Not that he believes in unicorns; rather, he enjoys myths and legends, and is fascinated by people who do champion the existence of Sasquatch.) But I love animals and museums, so when he suggested that we check out the exhibit, I was totally down with it.

Most of the exhibits were really quite amusing – very X-Files-ish.

For the conspiracy theorists, the door to the Department of Cryptozoology at the Federal Wildlife Commission:

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Some sort of ridiculously adorable unicorn-doggy hybrid:

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ZOMG, WANT! She’s probably not vegan, though.

A…day-glo monster fish? Honestly, I’ve no idea what he’s supposed to be:

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A turkey-monster!:

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Or Monsanto’s latest genetic creation; take your pick.

A miniature goat unicorn!:

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What is it with unicorn horns, people?

The anatomy of Capelobo, complete with sexy bits:

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Conjoined imp skeletons:

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Actually, that would look mighty fine hanging in my living room, right next to the gas mask prints I’ve been wanting. Morbid, me?

A very artsy Abominable Snowman, bringing the rodent(s) home for Mrs. Snow(wo)man and little Sally and Abominable Snowman, Jr.:

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And, of course, BIGFOOT!, i.e., Harry!

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OH NOES! LOOK OUT SHANE, HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

Um, sorry. All this silliness carries me away. Yes, I am a nerd. Good times, tho.

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All joking aside, there’s one exhibit that didn’t quite fit. Possibly you could call the Thylacine a cryptid in 2009, but once upon a time, they were alive and real. Thylacines existed – until we drove the species to extinction.

Explains Wiki,

The Thylacine was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. It is commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger (because of its striped back), the Tasmanian Wolf, and colloquially the Tassie (or Tazzy) Tiger or simply the Tiger. Native to continental Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, it is thought to have become extinct in the 20th century. It was the last extant member of its genus, Thylacinus, although several related species have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene.

The Thylacine became extinct on the Australian mainland thousands of years before European settlement of the continent, but it survived on the island state of Tasmania along with several other endemic species, including the Tasmanian Devil. Intensive hunting encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction, but other contributory factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs, and human encroachment into its habitat. Despite its official classification as extinct, sightings are still reported, though none proven.

Thylacines 01 (Wiki)

Image via Wiki and is part of the public domain.

Caption: “Thylacines in Washington D.C., 1902”

Description: “Thylacinus in Washington D.C. National Zoo, c. 1906.”

Source: Photograph by E.J. Keller, from the Smithsonian Institution archives.

The Thylacine is likely to have become extinct in mainland Australia about 2,000 years ago, and possibly earlier in New Guinea. The extinction is attributed to competition from indigenous humans and invasive dingoes. However, doubts exist over the impact of the dingo since the two species would not have been in direct competition with one another as the dingo hunts primarily during the day, whereas it is thought that the Thylacine hunted mostly at night. […]

Although the Thylacine had been extinct for around 2,000 years on the Australian mainland by the time the first European settlers arrived, it survived into the 1930s on the island state of Tasmania. At the time of the first settlement, the heaviest distributions were in the northeast, northwest and north-midland regions of the state. They were rarely sighted during this time but slowly began to be credited with numerous attacks on sheep. This led to the establishment of bounty schemes in an attempt to control their numbers. The Van Diemen’s Land Company introduced bounties on the Thylacine from as early as 1830, and between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head for dead adult Thylacines and ten shillings for pups. In all they paid out 2,184 bounties, but it is thought that many more Thylacines were killed than were claimed for. Its extinction is popularly attributed to these relentless efforts by farmers and bounty hunters. However, it is likely that multiple factors led to its decline and eventual extinction, including competition with wild dogs introduced by European settlers, erosion of its habitat, the concurrent extinction of prey species, and a distemper-like disease that also affected many captive specimens at the time. Whatever the reason, the animal had become extremely rare in the wild by the late 1920s. Despite the fact that the Thylacine was believed by many to be responsible for attacking on sheep, several efforts were made to save the species from extinction. Records of the Wilsons Promontory management committee dating to 1908 included recommendations for Thylacines to be reintroduced to several suitable locations on the Victorian mainland. In 1928, the Tasmanian Advisory Committee for Native Fauna had recommended a reserve to protect any remaining Thylacines, with potential sites of suitable habitat including the Arthur-Pieman area of western Tasmania.

In 1930 Wilf Batty, a farmer, killed the last known wild Thylacine in Mawbanna, in the northeast of the state. The animal, believed to have been a male, had been seen around Baty’s house for several weeks.

Thylacines 03 (Wiki)

Image via Wiki and is part of the public domain.

Caption: “This 1921 photo by Henry Burrell of a Thylacine with a chicken was widely distributed and may have helped secure the animal’s reputation as a poultry thief. In fact the image is cropped to hide the fenced run and housing, and analysis by one researcher has concluded that this Thylacine is a mounted specimen, posed for the camera.”

Thylacines 02 (Wiki)

Image via Wiki and is part of the public domain.

Caption: “Bagged Thylacine, 1869”

Description: “This iconic image of a bagged thylacine featuring Mr. Weaver in a studio portrait is repeatedly published yet it is not attributed. It may have been taken by Victor Prout who sojourned briefly in Tasmania in the late 1860s but is known and praised for his excellent panoramas of Sydney Harbour by contemporary photohistorians.”

Finally comes the portion of the Wiki entry that I excerpted in my explanation of the Karma banner, as it ties in directly with the Thylacine exhibit I saw:

The last captive Thylacine, later referred to as “Benjamin” (although its sex has never been confirmed) was captured in 1933 and sent to the Hobart Zoo where it lived for three years. […] This Thylacine died on 7 September 1936. It is believed to have died as the result of neglect—locked out of its sheltered sleeping quarters, it was exposed to a rare occurrence of extreme Tasmanian weather: extreme heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. This Thylacine features in the last known motion picture footage of a living specimen: 62 seconds of black-and-white footage showing it pacing backwards and forwards in its enclosure in a clip taken in 1933 by naturalist David Fleay. National Threatened Species Day has been held annually since 1996 on 7 September in Australia, to commemorate the death of the last officially recorded Thylacine. […]

The Thylacine held the status of endangered species until 1986. International standards state that any animal for which no specimens have been recorded for 50 years is to be declared extinct. Since no definitive proof of the Thylacine’s existence had been found since “Benjamin” died in 1936, it met that official criterion and was declared officially extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Thylacine sculpture pictured in the Karma banner sat on a table, not far from a projection screen. There playing, on a never ending loop, were the 62 seconds of Benjamin’s life immortalized on film.

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It’s difficult for me to convey the melancholia exuded by this one exhibit. Photos of the display appear depressing enough, but they only capture a fraction of the emotions I remember feeling, at once mesmerized and appalled by the images on the screen. It was…heartbreaking, in a word. A painfully stark contrast to the frivolity and lightheartedness of the other pieces in the exhibit.

Even the display’s placement was depressing – the Thylacine artifacts were sequestered in corner, sad and lonely. Appearing at an art museum, probably this was intentional, meant to emphasize Benjamin’s desolate existence – and the tragic fate of her species.

I watched the film reel a dozen times, possibly more. Imprisoned in a small cage, Benjamin paced back and forth,

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back and forth,

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back and forth.

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Pacing out of – what? Depression? Boredom? Anger? Frustration? Heartache? Loneliness? Most likely, all of these and more.

One of the last of her kind, she died in this prison, the victim of human cruelty and neglect.

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And sheer, naked prejudice. Thinking of what befell the Thylacines, I’m reminded of the current plight of wolves in the United States, who are demonized for “stealing” and eating the animals whom humans have destined for their own dinner tables. Wolves need to kill and eat animals; it’s a matter of survival. Humans – at least, these particular humans – do not. The hypocrisy and hatred is stunning.

Unfortunately, President Obama shows little interest in halting the genocide.

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One Response to “Portrait of Benjamin, a Thylacine. And also, housekeeping.”

  1. Kristen Says:

    Great post! It’s tragic that we never hear or think about the animals we have lost so far…but maybe it’s because before it was mostly due to nature, or it was one animal in several decades or centuries. Now I have a feeling we are going to see an explosion of loss. It’s heartbreaking, that kids in future generations might not get to experience the beauty of wolves, or polar bears, or Siberian tigers…

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