It's December in Tasmania, and my shoulders are baking in the late-afternoon sun as Greg Irons, the owner and director of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, climbs into an enclosure with two Tasmanian devils. Prince and Prada, a male and a female, are siblings that were hand-raised at Bonorong after their mother abandoned them.
Prince is reluctant to emerge from his burrow, but Prada ambles up to Irons and climbs in his lap, dangling her left paw over his arm.
I give her a pat, the black fur softer and less wiry than it looks. "I'm going to have to put you down now," he says, kneeling. She springs to the ground, grunting in protest.
Located about 45 minutes outside Tasmania's capital of Hobart, Bonorong is the anti-zoo. There is no train ride, no tinny narration by over-enthusiastic guides. Instead, there are typical Australian fauna and species unique to Tasmania. Bonorong also runs wildlife rescue and seabird rehabilitation programmes - and houses the world's only retirement community for Tasmanian devils, called Devil's Run.
And Devil's Run is why I'm meeting with Irons.
"Devils used to be all over Australia, but they became extinct on the mainland prior to European settlement," Irons says.
Now found only on Tasmania, the species, listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has a number of factors conspiring against it.
Many of the crepuscular creatures are hit by cars as they scavenge roadkill from busy streets. Some are attacked by dogs. Less common these days is deliberate poisoning by people who view the devil as a pest. But the most prominent reason is what Irons calls The Disease: devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a contagious form of cancer that has hit the wild devil population hard.
On the devil's odds, Irons is both sanguine and pragmatic.
"It's an incredibly hardy animal. It can eat any form of meat. It can have one big feed and not eat for five days, no worries at all, and it only needs a little bit of water to survive," he says.
"But can they handle the threats they face? Yeah, they can handle one. But can they handle all four, at the same time, when they all live on one island? Nah, probably not."
In response, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has established an insurance population: captive breeding devils that represent the known genetic strains in the wild.
Because of the fragility of the wild devil population, Prince and Prada can't be released.
"If we released them in the wrong spot, we could provide a bridge for the disease and make it worse," Irons says.
Three years ago, Irons inquired about starting an insurance population at Bonorong and learned that the real need was space for older devils that were past breeding age. (Devils typically live to be 5 or 6 and breed between ages 2 and 4.)
"Once a devil's done its thing, what do you do? Just euthanise it? That's not right," he says.
"That's where we said, 'Why don't we build a giant retirement village?'"
Although Devil's Run is an important educational tool for Bonorong, the point is not for visitors to see a geriatric devil; the point is for the devils to have a place to roam in peace while they live out their days. At the moment, there are only eight residents in Devil's Run, which slims our sighting odds. "If there were 20 in here, you'd probably only see one or two," Irons says.
We've already seen one, so I'm happy. But on our way out, we get even luckier. One of the devils' concrete ponds is being refurbished, so a bright-blue paddling pool is immediately visible - and inside it, a devil stands the equivalent of knee-deep in water. He considers us for a moment, then clambers out of the pool before shuffling away on a wonky left hip.
The rustle of grass, the flick of his tail, and he's gone.
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