In Australia, do dingoes really eat babies?

September 22, 2000

Dear Cecil:

In her best Australian accent Elaine Benes in Seinfeld once suggested to a stranger, "Maybe a dingo ate your baby." Then, of course, Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a band called Dingoes Ate My Baby. It all seemed to me an innocent evocation of the classic Australian wild-dog infanticide motif, a folk archetype that has probably existed for centuries (or however long dingoes roamed the outback). Recently, however, I saw the movie A Cry in the Dark with Sam Neill and Meryl Streep, about the apparently famous mid-80s Australian case of a mother accused of murdering her baby, while she contended that dingoes carried her infant daughter off in the night and devoured her. The movie shows that in fact it was probably the dingoes who did it. Did this court case establish the idea of baby-eating dingoes, or has this horror story been around for a long time and the case merely brought it out of Australia?

Why pick on dingoes? In Australia you've got your choice of horror stories. The saltwater crocodile, for example, will attack even when unprovoked. The tentacles of the box jellyfish supposedly contain enough poison to kill three adults. Of the world's top 25 venomous snakes, Australia has 21, including sea snakes with venom two to ten times as deadly as a cobra's. The cassowary, a large tropical bird, has a daggerlike forward toe it uses for kicking. Some cone shells contain a mix of toxins that can cause pain, paralysis, and collapse. Fairy penguins have been known to maul tourists (try explaining that to the folks back home). A thousand species of Australian plants are toxic to livestock and humans. And let's not forget skin cancer and Vegemite. Australia, land of wonders! Wonder anybody lives to age seven.

But you asked about dingoes. Thought to have arrived in Australia 30,000 years ago, the wild dog known as the dingo has long been known for its ferocity and willingness to drag off and eat almost anything, including rabbits, wallabies, and sheep. Attacks on humans are fairly common. Nonetheless, I don't know that prior to the sensational Azaria Chamberlain case in the 1980s the dingo was especially noted for its baby-eating proclivities. Indeed, some remain skeptical of dingo infanticide to this day, notwithstanding that the parents' murder convictions were overturned.

The whole thing began on the evening of August 17, 1980, while Lindy and Michael Chamberlain and their three children were camped at Ayers Rock, a massive rock formation in the central Australian outback. Lindy began shouting that a dingo had carried off her youngest child, nine-week-old Azaria. Other campers also saw a dingo near the Chamberlain tent. Aborigine trackers found signs that a large dingo had carried a heavy object away from the campsite. There were bloodstains in and on the tent, and several tattered items of the child's clothing were discovered later some distance from the camp. But the body was never found.

An initial coroner's inquest exonerated the Chamberlains and held that the baby had been carried off by a dingo. But police and prosecutors were skeptical that the animal was capable of such a thing, even though there had been dingo attacks at Ayers Rock not long before Azaria's disappearance. They consulted experts and collected enough new evidence that a second inquest was held, this one finding that the child had been murdered. After a widely publicized trial the parents were convicted and the mother spent several years in jail.

Many Australians were outraged. A grassroots campaign to clear the Chamberlains' name began, with a number of scientists and other interested parties devoting a substantial amount of time to examining the prosecution's evidence and undermining its conclusions. In 1987 an official inquiry agreed that the case hadn't been adequately proven. The convictions were quashed and the Chamberlains eventually received $1.3 million compensation.

In the end dingoes weren't officially blamed for Azaria's presumed death--the cause was held to be unknown. But the trial seems to have established that a dingo consuming a baby is at least physically possible.

In 1998, Australian news media carried a report of a dingo dragging an infant several feet before being shooed off. Curiously, the dingo in this case had a deformed foot, and early trackers of the dingo in the Chamberlain case speculated that it was similarly afflicted. A canine version of the one-armed man?

Whatever the case prior to 1980, baby-eating dingoes have now entered modern folklore. My intern Beth (Cecil has squads of interns) even turned up a Web site entitled "Babies Ate My Dingoes" (www.inet.ca/strangertimes/1/dingoes.ht ml). Ho ho ho. But it probably wasn't very funny at the time.

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