Feral Peril: foxes, devils, cats and scats. Tasmanian issues explored on ABC1 16 July.
As Tasmanian devils disappear at an alarming rate and Governments spend money on a fox eradication program in the island State, a number of characters emerge: those saving devils, those trying to get rid of foxes and those that have their doubts. Feral Peril, showing at 8.30pm Thursday 16 July on ABC1 explores these characters.
The documentary tries hard to intertwine the devil and the fox stories, using a murder-mystery approach, including a smoking detective figure that appears mainly in the fox bits but adds little to the devil bits of the program. The show ends up a bit schizophrenic trying to have fun with the elusive fox but then struggling to make a gross-looking ecological disaster like the demise of the devil look either fun or mysterious. One gets the impression that there wasn't quite enough material to make a full-on fox mystery story nor a full hour of nature documentary, so the film makers have tried to do both.
Despite that, both stories are fascinating and worth a look. It's just that the smoking detective and murder mystery style seems incongruous to presenting the wildlife disease story. Nevertheless, there is a good array of characters: the fox searchers that range from hunters, office workers and scientists, featuring the well-spoken and well-traveled Nick Mooney as the lead naturalist; the doubters, featuring a questioning vet and cynical former professional hunter and the converted, in the form of husband and wife wool producers. Then there is a Professor that worries about extinction (Chris Johnson) and another one dubbed an "Environmental Philosopher" with a suitably foreign accent and odd-looking shirt. Tying the story together is the narration of William McInnes, well-suited to the task (Feral Peril won Best Narration and awards for editing and script at the 32nd International Wildlife Film Festival in Montana earlier this year).
Now I'm biased about the story, because I sit on the fox eradication branch steering committee, so no one has to convince me that there are a small number of foxes in Tasmania and it's important to at least try and get rid of them. The fox program's cynics don't present anything that I haven't heard many times - though I'd admit surprise that the loudest blogger was nothing like my mind's picture. The croaky and grizzled bushman of my imagination turned out to be quite coiffed and high-pitched. To the uninitiated, Feral Peril introduces you to the world of the fox doubter, but doesn't dwell on the deep well of conspiracy.
The conversion of the wool-producing couple, the Taylors, from fox skeptics as they report a fox sighting and subsequently have a fox scat confirmed on their property unfolds nicely in the narrative. The initial phone call leads to investigation with a scat detecting dog to lab analysis, confirmation and finally shearing shed gossip. Mr Taylor makes a lone appearance admitting to niggling feelings about his wife's recollection or the Canberra lab's analysis; an appearance I'm pretty sure he'll regret when his wife sees even the whisper of a doubt.
Parallel to the fox story is the effort to provide a breeding "ark" for disease-free Tasmanian devils away from Tasmania. If the current top predator disappears, its spot might be occupied by the invasive fox - hence its inclusion as a major part of the program. The story warrants telling in its own right, and it tugs on the heartstrings of any animal lover, even if it gets a little lost in the mix. The devil team are the unheralded heroes, working in tough conditions on a project with relatively little light at the end of the tunnel.
The final word is left to the boffin environmental philosopher. He of the funny shirt; the usual suspect that self-flagellates, blaming man as the worst feral animal. Kind of predictable, and to my mind adds another level of schizophrenia to a documentary touted as an unfolding detective story. Unfortunately, it doesn't do more than scratch the surface and is unlikely to convince the viewer one way or the other about the story. While not quite living up to expectations, Feral Peril does entertain and inform, and will leave you thinking; just not too hard.
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'