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A dingo’s tale

Geoff Helisma The NSW Local Land Services Act 2013 regards dingoes as wild dogs, which, in turn, are declared as ‘noxious animals’ – this legislation means that dingoes cannot be protected by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. In August this year, the Independent published a story, Dusty Phantom’s days are numbered, about a dingo (that may well have been a cross with a domesticated or feral dog) also known as ‘Ernie’ by some. One Brooms Head resident, photographer and book author Stephen Otton, developed a personal relationship with Dusty over the past 12 months, as did several other residents – albeit from a safe distance: Dusty would only come so close to humans. His existence was always fraught, though; it was only a matter of time until National Parks & Wildlife Service caught up with the dog and did what the legislation instructed. Earlier this year, one of Steve’s friends, with a friend from the United States in tow, visited. She, too, was sentimentally entranced by the Dusty Phantom; subsequently she followed the many photographs and videos Steve published on his Facebook page, providing motivation to a story from an outsider’s perspective.  

Above: Just a scrawny young pup when Stephen Otton first encountered the Dusty Phantom.

From dust to dust By Susan Chaplin

“There!” says the tall Brooms Head local to his short and stocky mate. Standing side by side, as dawn breaks, they gaze out at the shoreline. “I see him,” says the shorter man. Swirls of dust and beach mirages of shadow, light and water uncannily take on the slim canine’s shape and his fluid way of moving. Unsure if they had actually seen the ‘Dusty Phantom’, the two men peer hopefully into the distance. They walk to the beach, where they follow the canine’s footprints that trail across the pale sand in front of them, like a strand of wild dark pearls. ………. Now, though, unless phantoms do actually exist, no one will ever see the little wild dog again. He has died, slain by National Park & Wildlife officials ‘doing their duty’. He was an unusual dingo. Either his pack had left him, or he had lost his pack. He seemed intensely curious about humans, quietly observing while hiding in the bush with just his ears showing. He did not beg for food or foist himself on humans. He foraged far afield, but returned always to Brooms Head. Residents and tourists who saw him were intrigued by the gentle young apex predator. He seemed a perfect ambassador for the Australian wilderness. He was an icon representing the continent’s vast inner deserts and trackless bushland. The Dusty Phantom, for some, symbolised freedom and open spaces. He bonded with a few Brooms Head locals, like wildlife photographer and naturalist Stephen Otton. Dusty often played with Steve’s dogs. He got to know the sound of Steve’s car. The excited young dog came out of the heath, barking along the roadway, to greet him. Together, Steve and Dusty enjoyed playing some serious games of hide-and-seek. But fear was a polarising factor. Some loved him. Others wanted him shot on sight. Those who viewed Dusty as a potential threat to themselves, their children and their domestic pets complained to National Parks and wanted him removed. But Dusty was a survivor. For a while he eluded all efforts to catch him. He refused to take the poisonous 1080 bait; he ignored professional traps. In the end, though, those angry frustrated locals pinpointed his habits, enough for rangers to set the trap that caught him. Shortly thereafter a ranger shot him, point blank, while he was still in the cage. Those of us who loved Dusty feel sadness, anger and outrage over his seemingly senseless murder.

Above: 12 months later he sported a healthy coat and disposition. Images Stephen Otton

Remembering the Dusty Phantom By Stephen Otton

The Dusty Phantom was a survivor, having spent anything from a year-plus combing the heath land from Sandon River to Sandy Creek to Red Cliff and the edge of Brooms Head. A neighbour, who cared for him and taught him the best he could to stay out of sight of the road, people and other dogs, etcetera, is devastated – away for 10 days, he arrived home the day after he was captured and shot. If he’d been here at the time, I’m sure, together, we probably would have chained ourselves to the ute that took Dusty away. But common sense prevailed for me, and I was with him until he was taken away – I had no choice other than to let Dusty go. I did request earlier in the year that I wanted to take him on and said I had the means to care for him, being an owner of five cattle dogs and one border collie, and the space and time to do so, but my idea was crushed with the words that you cannot domesticate a wild dog/dingo unless it’s a pup. You’d never know where Dusty would show his innocent, handsome face. While sometimes he followed locals and tourists, some complained of stalking, he was really just curious. We got to know each other when I exercised my dog Tanka – me riding and Dusty following, zigzagging across the road. It was exciting working with him. He was a playful happy dog often playing with roadside rubbish for something to do. I was collecting photos for a short story about feeding wildlife, but time ran out. On the day of Dusty’s trapping, the ranger apologised to me, saying that Dusty went for him from inside the cage. That behaviour, he said, meant he was a wild dog. He said dingos just curl up in a ball and stay quiet. I was told, bluntly, that he was now going to shoot. Any happy ending I had in mind for the story was crushed. I was left devastated, standing beside the vehicle, with Dusty making eyes toward me as if to say, “Please Steve, help me.” None the less, I will continue with the story of The Dusty Phantom … stay tuned.