April 28, 2016

By Alice Seyfried
Fred Saigh Curator Emerson Children's Zoo

Three years ago, I traveled 22,000 miles round-trip with Saint Louis Zoo Keeper Shannon Santangelo to Tasmania and back. Many people thought I was going to the ends of the earth.

In fact, Tasmania, an island state of Australia, is incredibly beautiful, with sophisticated cities and beautiful countryside with weather not unlike St. Louis' – a cool, temperate climate with four distinct seasons. It can also get downright hot in the summer—just like St. Louis.

 About half of Tasmania lies in reserves, national parks, and World Heritage Sites so it's little wonder the state was the founding site for the first environmental party in the world. Its citizens are very determined to not only to save their ecosystem but to save their native species.

And what Tasmania has that no one else does are little devils. Today, in the Emerson Children's Zoo, we opened a new home for two Tasmanian devil sisters—both age 2. This brand new Tasmanian-themed outdoor habitat was built specifically for these endangered animals, and the sisters' arrival marks the first time in 30 years that the Saint Louis Zoo has cared for this species.

Our Zoo is only one of six U.S. zoos chosen to care for Tasmanian devils. Our two devils will serve as ambassadors of their kind to help visitors understand their plight and work to conserve them and other species threatened with extinction. We are honored to be one of the zoos chosen to participate in this program.

Preparations for their coming here began years ago. In 2013, to learn about the husbandry of Tasmanian devils, Saint Louis Zoo keeper Shannon Santangelo and I spent a week training at Trowunna Wildlife Park in Tasmania with Androo Kelly and his staff. We have also had a visit from Androo to our Zoo and had many discussions about the needs of this species.

In addition, in March of this year, to help the two little devils get used to life in St. Louis, experienced animal care professional Steve Kleinig spent 41 hours traveling from Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, Australia, to St. Louis.

Steve's visit to St. Louis marked his first time in the United States. During his time here, he saw a bit of the area, but most of the time he worked with the Saint Louis Zoo staff to help settle the two devils (Yindi and Jannali) into their new home. 

Caring for them effectively is important especially because Tasmanian devil populations in the wild have been decimated—declining by 80 percent since the 1990s. Devils have declined due to loss of habitat, vehicle collisions, predation by feral cats and dogs and bush fires. But none of those factors have had the impact of the rare contagious cancer that is unique to devils and spread by their biting each other during social interactions like feeding and breeding. It typically kills a devil within months, and there's no known cure or vaccine although, as a preventive measure, scientists are doing vaccine trials with animals that have been released back into the wild.

Since it was first noticed in 1996, as this devil facial tumor disease spread through devil populations, the Tasmanian government decided that urgent action was required to establish a genetically viable captive population as an "insurance" against their extinction.  They caught wild disease-free devils to create an "insurance" population in their zoos and wildlife parks throughout mainland Australia. They also moved wild populations to protected areas, such as islands off Tasmania and peninsulas that offer barriers to contagion.

Steve brought a wealth of knowledge to us, having worked with Australian native species for more than two decades. His zoo has had great success breeding Tasmanian devils since the establishment of the "insurance" population about 10 years ago. There are 14 devils now at Taronga Western Plains Zoo so they were able to share some animals that are surplus to breeding requirements with U.S. zoos selected to care for this species.

Here are some of Steve's impressions of these remarkable animals: "They are generally very shy and like their privacy; however, they socialize and show aggression toward each other to assert their position in a group. Their lifespan is quite short—five or six years, and a female will typically breed only three or four times in her life so it's important to have sufficient numbers of the species to breed them effectively and to maintain genetic diversity within the population."

  Interview with Shannon and Steve
Interview with Shannon and Steve

He adds that devils are curious and energetic. "They travel long distances each night to find food, sometimes covering as much as 10 miles, and they use their keen senses of smell and hearing to find prey or carrion. Tasmanian devils are predominantly carrion eaters, scavenging anything that comes their way. But they also hunt live prey such as small mammals and birds. Eliminating carrion and the disease risks of dead animals is an important role they play within the ecosystem."

How can this six-foot-tall Australian care so deeply about this tiny animal which weighs less than 25 pounds? "These animals are a very unique, iconic Australian species that has been part of our landscape for thousands of years. They are extinct on the mainland of Australia where they once lived only a few centuries ago.  Now they live only in Tasmania. It is critical that we save them."