The Feral Muse (5)

By: Matthew Battles
June 8, 2011

The dingo is the original feral dog — it likely arrived in Australia some four thousand years ago, a barely-domesticated companion riding in the boats of migrating Austronesians. Australia saw another infusion of feral dogs in the colonial era when Europeans brought their shepherds, guardians, and companions. These two feral populations have intermixed, as evidenced by the masked faces of the dogs in this video; there’s likely no longer such thing as a “pure” dingo. But then, was there ever such a thing — or is there only ever such a thing?

The wild dog is a fraught symbol of Australian wildness (a wildness marked everywhere by the ancient and abiding figurations of the human). After all, these beautiful creatures are also dangerous predators and troublesome pests. In regions where their populations run high, they’re pursued with recreational impunity by hunters who have discovered that a high whistle or keening call will bring them running from their outback redoubts. (The kid who posted the video online explains that he’s doing it “for practise when i go bowhunting for dogs with dad.”)

It’s a primordial practice, whistling for dogs; it probably began when Paleolithic hunters observed the creatures emerging from the woods at the cries of wounded quarry — to kill and to steal, but also to beg. To bring us to heel, to engage in a lengthy and perilous adventure of co-domestication. And now these dogs, feral descendants of our feral fellow-travelers, still feel an impulse, strangely compounded of hunger and desire to please, at the sound of a whistle. A friend who knows the feeling terms it “frightened curiosity” — that feeling, the tragic and unavoidable compulsion, which drags some of us towards inamicable voices and faces.

And so in these dogs, the essence of the feral muse: they’re strong and fast and hungry; they know they’re hunted everywhere; and yet they remain in spirited thrall to a frightened curiosity.