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28 October 2014
by Kevin Markwell and Nancy Cushing

Animals and Australian identity

Next week the race that has 'stopped the nation' on the first Tuesday of November since 1861 will see millions of dollars of thoroughbred horseflesh thunder around Flemington Racetrack. The richest race of its kind in the world, it will sweep up hard-core and once-a-year punters alike in what has become one of the nation's defining rituals.

Epic events like the Cup demand there be heroes and there is no horse more heroic than Phar Lap, so ingrained in Australian mythology that he forms the basis of a question in the Australian citizenship test. But Phar Lap is far from being the only animal that has helped give shape and meaning to Australian identity.

Another eminent equine, Simpson's donkey, carried wounded soldiers down the steep escarpment at Gallipoli giving ordinary Australians an image of wartime service and salvation which they could embrace more easily than a man with a fixed bayonet. And while we don't give hero status to individual sheep, we were happy to acknowledge that the nation's wealth rode for a century on the boney backs of merino (and other) sheep.

When Australians needed more general symbolic representations of who we are, we look to our animals. The kangaroo and emu have been supporting shields on coats of arms since the 1850s. The king's head was replaced by a kangaroo on the Commonwealth's first postage stamp in 1913, followed by later issues with a kookaburra and a merino sheep. Echidnas, platypuses, feather-tailed gliders, frill-neck lizards and lyrebirds were chosen to adorn the new decimal currency in 1966.

When we present ourselves to the world, we use animals to help us. The boxing kangaroo first appeared on Australian fighter planes during World War II and has been used as a symbol of a feisty Australian identity ever since. The kookaburra's name is used for our national men's hockey team, while the Wallabies and Kangaroos defend our reputation on the international playing field in rugby union and rugby league, respectively.

Syd the platypus and his mates Ollie the kookaburra and Millie the echidna were the official mascots for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, competing for attention with Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat, Roy and HG's rotund anti-mascot. And before them came Matilda the kangaroo, mascot of the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

Australian popular culture is swarming with animals of all kinds and dispositions. Many of us shared our childhoods with the adventures of Blinky Bill, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and the Muddle Headed Wombat.

Australian films have drawn on animals to scare and terrorise audiences (Razorback and Rogue), create comedic adventure (Crocodile Dundee) or more recently, celebrate the deep loyalty that can exist between a non-human animal and its human companion (Red Dog). We sing songs about redbacks on toilet seats and brolgas dancing on plains at Christmas time. (Whether we ever sing about six white boomers, though, is a moot point).

Animals have played a darker role in Australian culture as well. The black snake, wickedly intimidating Henry Lawson's "Drover's Wife", represented the dangers and unpredictability of the Australian bush. The menacing snake intruding into the domestic spaces of Australians is a theme on which countless articles have been published in regional and metropolitan newspapers alike and which finds contemporary expression in YouTube videos and Facebook feeds.

Very often, this darkness is cheekily capitalised upon, leveraging the attractive power of the dangerous or disgusting. T shirts and tea towels emblazoned with our deadly fauna are popular souvenirs while comedy music duo, Scared Weird Little Guys, celebrate Australia's toxic and terrorizing animals in their song "Deadly Animals (Come to Australia)". For at least some international tourists, it's the saltwater crocs, dingo, great white sharks and Sydney funnel web spiders that help to define the Australia that they hope to experience.

Even an introduced invasive animal like the cane toad has been embraced by Australian culture. The feral amphibian provides a nickname for the Queensland state of origin team and has been the subject of two quirky popular documentaries and a short film. Tourists place bets on cane toad races and buy purses fashioned from their skins. Whacking cane toads with cricket bats is considered by some to almost be a national sport.

What then, can we conclude about a nation in which animals have been made to carry such a burden of the expression of identity? All nations face the challenge of creating an imagined community from an assortment of disparate people who happen to end up within arbitrary borders but few have focused so much on animals to help them do so.

Like other colonies, the ones in Australia had to fashion an identity which was distinctive from that of the imperial power, but also placed an emphasis on continuity. We had no ancient mythological origins (being unwilling to place ourselves within an Aboriginal cultural framework), no defining war of independence, no great hero who rose up to throw off the shackles of an oppressive overlord and no unique ethnic or racial identity, indeed a preference to see links with other "white" and Anglo places.

What we did have was a continent filled with a conveniently idiosyncratic, even weird, assortment of native animals and some very profitable introduced species to share it with. And it is to these co-inhabitants that we continue to turn in our attempts to symbolize our distinctive character and identity. A habit formed in the colonial period now fits a multicultural nation which increasingly finds pride in having not one background story, but many. Animals can equally represent, amuse or terrify us all.

Yet, for all the ways by which animals and their representation have helped shape Australian identity, the stark reality is that our nation has a truly appalling record of species extinctions, particularly of mammals. Twenty-nine species of native mammals, ranging from the thylacine to the toolache wallaby have become extinct since European colonisation. That equates to a third of all mammal extinctions anywhere in the world in the past 400 years. In the 3 minutes and 20 odd seconds it takes the horses to run the course at Flemington, the nation may stop, but the forces that play a role in pushing species to the brink of extinction such as habitat loss, feral animal predation and climate change will continue, nudging the 96 species currently listed as critically endangered a little closer to extinction as well.
Despite all they have done for us, our impact on Australia's animals is anything but a matter for national pride.