Much like another of my favorite animals -- the sloth -- Tasmanian devils have had a bit of a bad rap in the PR stakes. First there's the name, which isn't exactly endearing, then there's the image of the Looney Tunes cartoon character -- a psychotic whirlwind of anger and aggression.
I discovered a very different animal whilst I was making my new TV series, 'Freaks and Creeps' for National Geographic Wild. Yes they are carnivores with fantastically powerful jaws and thick muscular necks that can even rip through thick metal wire. They use this strength to tear apart carcasses but more often than not they're found doing the rather useful job of cleaning up road kill rather than attacking other creatures. Moreover the size of their massive over-sized jaw and neck in relation to their squat little body makes them waddle around like a slightly drunken sailor, which is more endearing than threatening.
It was the early European settlers that dubbed them devils after witnessing their snarling behavior whilst feeding. But this is mostly all show. I visited a Tassie devil breeding center where I got involved with a tug of war with five hungry males and managed to escape with all my fingers in tact.
Instead of snarling menaces I found devoted moms caring for impossibly cute little devils who've survived an epic fight from the moment they're born. Marsupial babies all emerge as little more than fetuses, with the majority of development taking place externally in the pouch. Tasmanian devils are no exception and the mothers give birth after about three weeks of pregnancy to 20 or 30 tiny pink young. These jelly bean babies must first survive the marathon crawl up the mother's fur to reach her pouch. But this is just the first test. When they get there the mother only has four nipples, so only a handful of babies will make it. A brutal survival of the fittest test at the very start of their tiny lives.
So I think it's time we dispelled this monstrous myth. Especially since right now the Tasmanian devil really needs our love. As you'll discover in my show these ancient marsupials are under threat from a deadly facial tumor disease which threatens to wipe out the entire species in less than a couple of decades. It's time we develop some sympathy for the devil, before it's too late.
'Freaks and Creeps: Devil's Island' airs on National Geographic Wild Saturday July 21st at 10pm EST.
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