Report of Les Harris, Expert on Dingo Behavior, on the Propensity of Dingoes to Attack Humans

Report submitted in December 1980
to Coroner Barritt

1. Search for remains

Observations show that a mammal weighing ten pounds would normally be totally consumed in less than twenty minutes by a solitary dingo eating in the most leisurely fashion. A mated pair would probably consume the same mammal in less than ten minutes, there being a finite hierarchical order of food sharing with mated pairs. Two or more immature dingoes (less than two years old) would consume it in four minutes or less, there being vigorous competition for food, unhampered by considerations of adult hierarchy or mated pair behaviour. Mammals are usually consumed entirely; nothing is left. It is difficult to identify a spot where a mammal has been consumed for this reason.

Comment: If the baby was taken by a dingo, it is improbable that any trace would be found more than thirty minutes later.

2. Stomach analysis

Observations indicate that food is digested and the waste excreted in ten to twenty-four hours, depending on the nature of the food and the age of the animal which consumed it. When added to the above notes on consumption time, it can be seen that by about eight p.m. on the following night the waste would normally have been excreted, and nothing could be learned by examining stomach contents later than that time, and probably to twelve hours earlier than that time.

3. Speculation on the strength of dingoes

There has been much speculation as to whether a dingo could carry a weight of ten pounds and, if so, how far it could be carried. Observations show that mammals of about twenty pounds can be carried over long distances with considerable ease, e.g. an adult female dingo was observed carrying a wallaby of approximately twenty pounds; it was carried by the middle of the back with only the tail touching the ground. The distance over which she was observed was about half a mile, for which distance she moved at a trot with no indication that the load impaired her in any way.

An adult male was observed carrying a very large hare up a slope of some thirty degrees, over a distance of about six hundred yards. On detecting the presence of the observer, he stopped motiohless for some two to two and a half minutes whilst he assessed the situation. During this time he stood in the characteristic neck-up attitude with the hare in his mouth. The weight of the hare appeared to be of no consequence. After satisfying himself that
there was no danger, he moved off up the slope and disappeared into the trees.

Comment: A mammal weighing ten pounds is smaller than the game regularly caught, killed, and carried over various distances. Such a weight would offer no hindrance, and it can be reasonably presumed that it could be carried over a long distance with ease.

4. Condition of the baby's clothing

There has been considerable speculation as to whether a dingo could have removed the baby's clothing and, if so, how it would be done. The manipulative ability of dingoes is extremely high but this ability is very difficult to quantify and can only be done anecdotally.

(a) I have on three occasions left parcels of meat within reach of my tame six-year old male dingo. On two of these occasions, the parcel was unrolled and the meat extracted from the plastic bag. The paper was torn minimally and only at the point at which the unrolling commenced, and the plastic bag was not torn at all. On the third occasion, the end of the parcel was opened and the meat was extracted. This parcel was wedged in a box along with other parcels and he performed the extraction in situ. Only the end was opened.

(b) A tame three-year-old female has been observed to open a domestic refrigerator, pull out the meat tray, and help herself to the contents. Whilst the refrigerator door did not have a mechanical lock, it nonetheless required a hefty pull in a finite direction to open it. In order to exert the amount of leverage in the required direction, she stood on her hind legs to one side of the door, braced her forefeet on a cupboard, leaned sideways, took the door handle in her teeth and pulled it open. She then changed position, stood on her hind legs again and pulled the meat tray out, again in one finite direction.

(c) During the mating season, I had my six-year-old male and a four-year old female chained to a post. The female was on a chain twice the length of that of the male. Although the female was then post oestrus, the male was still strongly motivated to mate, but the female deliberately stayed beyond his reach. (The females are in eostrus only once a year and the males are sexually active for about six weeks spanning the female oestrus period.) After failing to entice the female within his reach, the male reached forward and took the female's chain in his teeth. He then gave a mighty heave on the chain, taking the female unawares, and tossed her back well within his reach. As she was still scrambling to her feet, he pounced on her and mounted her.

I am considerably handicapped in making any significant comment on the state of the baby's clothing as my only information was a very brief TV news film-clip of the clothing laid out on a table shortly after it was found. I therefore cannot draw any conclusions, but point out that I judge the manipulative skills and the cognitive abilities of dingoes to be very high, far higher than dogs, and probably as high as that of a young primate. If the baby was taken by a dingo, the presence of soft, pliable, and probably loose garments would not impede them, and I can well visualize that they were peeled off without difficulty. Macabre as this comment may sound, dingoes are usually fastidious eaters and tend to reject foreign matter from their food. From the brief view that I had of the clothing. the amount of blood around the neck of the garments would be commensurate with the observed tactic of killing small mammals by seizing them by the nape of the neck and giving a very fast and powerful shake; if the baby was carried
for some distance with its heart stopped, little bleeding, would occur.

5. The zoo experiment

The results of the experiment where a kid goat was dressed in baby's clothing and given to zoo dingoes would be valid for that situation only, and could not be reasonably extrapolated as being indicative of the behaviour of naturally occurring dingoes. The pressure to compete for food is very much diminished in zoo and sanctuary predatory carnivores, simply because very palatable food is delivered to them in abundant quantities every day without fail. Since they have never had to exercise the very demanding hunting skills on a daily basis in order to survive, these
skills never develop to more than a miniscule fraction of their wild counterparts. Whilst I have myself in the course of these notes, made some comparisons between the eating habits of wild and tame dingoes, I could not in any conscience draw any conclusions from this particular experiment.

It is an unfortunate but inescapable side effect on zoo animals that they are natural animals in physical appearance only. In such an experiment, dingoes which have lived their entire lives in an area the size of a couple of
tennis-courts, and who have had their food supplied each day are not going to act in the manner of, or with the determination of, naturally occurring dingoes which must stalk and kill prey every day of their lives in order
simply to stay alive.

Comment: The zoo experiment would not reveal any results which could be reliably extrapolated to naturally occurring dingoes.

6. Saliva on clothing

Observations indicate that dingoes are tidy eaters and, in conditions of adequate supply, do not appear to slaver when eating. In the common sociologically stable situation of the mated pair, food is shared on an unhurried basis. The tearing apart and gulping down of a mammal could occur in certain situations, e.g. in times of dire shortage of prey, or when the available food is being consumed by a number of immature dingoes of equal social status. In the latter situation, an overabundance of saliva could be promoted by hunger or competition. Direct observation of wild and captive dingoes in a stable social order show that consumption is unhurried, the lips are well drawn back when the carnassials are used in the shearing mode, slavering appears to be absent, and food is not scattered about. In the cases quoted earlier, where one of my captive dingoes opened meat parcels, there was no sign of the wetting of the paper by saliva.

Comment: Saliva would not necessarily be present in discernible quantities on the clothing....

7. Conclusion 

Comparisons between dingoes and domestic dogs are not particularly valid, tempting as they might be. The dingo is a natural canid (in fact a wolf, not a dog) which has to practise its hunting skills on a daily basis and at a very high level of efficiency in order to survive. In terms of strength, speed, agility and reasoning power, they compare more readily with the natural felines, i.e. tigers, leopards, et al. It is easier to underestimate the capabilities
of dingoes than to overestimate them.

The Ayers Rock dingoes are atypical in one respect of natural behaviour. They have had very close contact with tourists for a long time and have been fed directly and indirectly by tourists. They have maintained all of their hunting skills, plus extended their abilities to acquire food from tourists and their campsites, and you are no doubt aware that they often raid tents in their search for food. Humans, their accoutrements, their tents and caravans pose no threat, and pillaging is not uncommon. This has resulted in a very dangerous situation wherein they are not tame and they are not wild.

In considering the questions:

1. Could a dingo have taken the baby?

2. Could a dingo or dingoes have removed its clothing?

3. Could a dingo or dingoes have totally consumed the baby?

my answers, based on many years of observation of dingoes in their natural
habitat and in captivity, would be:

1. Yes, with ease.

2. Probably yes.

3. Yes, without any doubt.

Chamberlain Trial Homepage