Shooting messengers has become a culturally-acceptable sport within the Department of Primary Industry, Water & Environment. What’s more it’s Open Season all year round … put your head up and expect to be fair game!
I’m not dead yet but I have lost a few feathers in my time…..blind in one eye yes, but I think my head is still intact.
It seems the Game Keepers don’t like and can’t handle criticism especially where money might be involved. Where they see criticism as censure, others hold up the mirror of analysis.
All I have ever called for regarding Tasmania’s fox containment policy is for a logical, science-based risk assessment based on two important qualitative criteria – the likelihood of an unwanted weed, pest or disease entering, gaining establishment and then spreading and the consequences to social, economic and environmental well-being.
I have never doubted that the threat of foxes rates highly on both these criteria. The Precautionary Principle – a term that big party politicians usually choke on – is now being used as a javelin to spear the critics. This is a destructive and brutal sport.
But we’re playing a very serious game – according to the game-keepers rules. And game-keepers are prone to change the rules when it suits them, they’re also the umpire and basically, they’d much prefer to play amongst themselves. It’s best that way because that ensures they always win! And that’s what it’s always been about – winning the hearts and minds of the average punter. Not a game for the singleton ‘brave hearts’ to contest. You’d have to be a bloody fool to play against these bruisers. And if you aren’t a fool when you begin, they’ll make sure you are at the end!
But the spectators just love it! The Media always has lots to write about and you know what they say – Winners are Grinners.
So what’s my problem?
Well for starters: Does the game have defined rules? Are all contestants treated equally? Is the umpire impartial? Is the game a fair and equal contest?
If someone calls ‘foul’, will an impartial umpire adjudicate?
All I have done is ask for ‘the rules’, examine the rules and compare the conduct of the game with those rules.
In this case the rules of evidence.
By all means have a Fox Threat Abatement Campaign based on the known risk of incursion of foxes through Tasmanian Ports. The historically proven threat of fox introductions should be justification for an ongoing early detection, quarantine and field surveillance program for foxes.
Before my critics cast their stones – please note this is about the means justifying the end and not the other way around.
Under Freedom of Information legislation, the documented body of ‘hard evidence’ supporting the view that foxes had established in Tasmania was requested. I was asked to examine those documents, particularly the forensic evidence. For those who would like to read that analysis, here it is:
COMMENTS ON THE PUBLIC RECORD
Shortly after the Symmons Plains fox incident Peter Mooney, the then Fox Taskforce Leader was interviewed by Alexandra de Blas for ABC-RN’s Earthbeat program. She asked him if there was any evidence that the fox had become established in Tasmania.
Peter Mooney: “Well the main evidence is that we’ve had analysis done on a carcase that was handed in to us about a month ago [Eric Bosworth’s fox] and the gut samples have come up to be conclusively Tasmanian foods. In other words that’s Tasmanian native rats [plural] Tasmanian skinks [plural] – endemic species that only exist in Tasmania, and also we’ve had other material handed to us from other foxes [plural] which have been allegedly shot in Tasmania, and the DNA sampling of those two different animals [skin from the Longford incident & Eric Bosworth’s fox] have come out to prove that they’re actually siblings. So that means we’ve had a litter.”
In the 2003 issue of DPIWE’s Game Tracks – The Official Publication of the Game Management Services Unit it states: The skin of a second fox allegedly shot at Longford showed, through DNA analysis, a direct relationship to the Symmons Plains fox.
For several years these comments asserting a close link between these two fox incidents was widely repeated in the broader local media (electronic & print) and this became universally accepted as the ‘hard evidence’.
Then Minister for the Environment, David Llewellyn said, “DNA assessment showed the second fox [Bosworth’s fox] was a sibling or close relative of the first fox [the skin of the Longford fox] – having their origin in southern Victoria.” [The Mercury 5 June 2002].
Even experienced Tasmanian journalists like Judy Tierney came out adamantly supporting the alleged version of events at Symmons Plains. It is little wonder that the evidence of genetic association was also universally accepted as correct.
Judy Tierney: “When Eric Bosworth shot that fox, it was the first tangible evidence that this dreaded animal had indeed come to Tasmania.” “Until Eric Bosworth shot a fox, there had been rumours that someone somehow had illegally smuggled in pairs of the animals. This confirmed it, and in response, the State Government set up the Fox Taskforce.”
[Reference: The 7.30 REPORT – ABCTV 23 April 2002]
However, I believe, the reliability and credibility of the evidence that supported those statements was not properly assessed.
It was only in 2004 after some persistence by other Tasmanian journalists, like Rohan Wade that these oft repeated conclusions were firstly questioned then grudgingly responded to publicly.
Little wonder also that any individuals, who dared to investigate, unravel and then reconstruct the course of events, the documented facts and the public statements on these events have been so angrily attacked.
In August 2004 Nick Mooney told The Mercury, “All of Australia’s millions of foxes come from a few pairs, so they are all related.”
“The Longford fox photo of anonymous hunters and a dead fox is indeed likely to be an irresponsible hoax,…… We had to take it seriously at the time to try and settle the issue, but I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.”
“Even if the pelt is a hoax, the amount of sightings and other weight of evidence, particularly the Symmons Plains [Eric Bosworth’s] fox, it meant there were foxes in Tasmania.”
And Nick wasn’t the only individual publicly confident on this matter.
Minister for the Environment, David Llewellyn informed Parliament on 23 August 2001 that the photo in The Examiner newspaper of two men with a fox published in July convinced him with ‘almost 100% certainly’ that there were foxes near Longford.
But if ‘the Longford fox’, to use Nick’s words, was a hoax (i.e. fabrication of evidence), then, what about the fox allegedly shot at Symmons Plains?
Could the Symmons Plains fox too be a fabricated hoax?
Tasmania’s fox saga has had a long chronicled history of coverage both from the Government media sources and the mainstream media.
Hoaxes and practical jokes are common. These include a fresh fox skin draped over a utility tray at a Cooee cattle sale in June 1999 and claims made by two men in July 2001 that they allegedly shot a fox near St Helens.
If nothing else, the degree to which this fox program has been dogged by hoaxes and sensationalism, it should have triggered an even greater degree of care in the analysis of all evidence that was brought forward.
It was not unreasonable to expect investigators to determine the credibility of the witnesses, the veracity of their verbal testimony and the nature of physical evidence before determining its usefulness as ‘hard evidence’.
One hundred and ten pages of documents were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation. As a pathologist, I was asked to review those relating to the forensic evidence on the dead fox found by the verge of the Bass Highway, Burnie in October 2003 and on the decomposed fox carcase alleged to have been shot at Symmons Plains by Eric Bosworth in September 2001.
Burnie Fox – October 2003
In the case of the Burnie fox although the likely time it died could be determined fairly accurately, where and how it died was less clear. Being found by a busy highway with a smashed & bleeding head might circumstantially suggest a road kill, but this was a rather simplistic explanation and didn’t take into consideration the circumstances or the history of another fox incident at Burnie.
On 31 May 1998 a Melbourne port fox stowed away aboard the ship, City of Melbourne bound for Burnie. The fox was seen leaping ashore. Max Kitchell, then Director of Tasmania’s Parks & Wildlife Service, was quoted by Bruce Montgomery in The Weekend Australian of 4-5 July 1998 as saying:
“Despite capturing it on video and getting a good set of prints, we were unable to capture the fox. We have tried many different tactics to locate the animal and since none of them has been successful at this stage, we have decided to switch the focus of our fox control measures to preventing the same situation ever occurring again. Now that there appears to be an individual fox loose in Tasmania, it is more important than ever no more foxes be able to slip into the state.”
The 1998 fox had in fact escaped from the boat and remained within Sea-tainer roll on – roll off port facility until it ‘escaped’ and was videoed trotting down the beach at Burnie. Given Kitchell’s reassuring words, little wonder any repeat of such an incident would be embarrassing to both the operators of the facility and, of course, to the State government – barrier quarantine, pre-border quarantine etc
But repeat it likely did – in October 2003.
Again a DNA test was done on this 2003 fox to compare with DNA from foxes at Webb Dock in Melbourne and with the Bosworth fox but those results have never been released.
There were also allegations about a lack a proper investigation of this incident; Nick Mooney himself accepts this. Even a Taskforce officer, Ken Wright said he was particularly frustrated at lengthy delays in allowing his trained sniffer dog to trace foxes after reports.
Ken Wright: “The idea would have been to call in the dog as soon as there was a sighting, but they never did that. There’s no point waiting a few days, the dog wasn’t really given a chance,” he told The Mercury journalist, Rohan Wade.
It appears that this Burnie fox incident was not investigated using, perhaps the one useful tool the Taskforce had, a trained sniffer dog. So we’ll never know.
A plausible alternative explanation to the explanation of a road kill death of fox already living in Burnie was that the animal was a recent émigré from the Port of Melbourne arriving on a trans-Bass Strait bulk freight ferry.
If so, this was another breach in our Tasmanian border quarantine and nothing to do “with irresponsible members of the Tasmanian community introducing young foxes into Tasmania’ as David Llewllyn had maintained in 2001.
Bosworth’s Fox – September 2001
After reading the FOI documents, I believe, the reliability of Messrs Eric Bosworth & Scot Geeves description of events relating to the Symmons Plains fox requires careful review and further consideration.
The Minister for the Environment, Judy Jackson relies on the authenticity of their story when she wrote, ‘with the evidence that includes a dead fox [Bosworth’s fox] with an endemic species in its gut, the Government had to take decisive action’ [The Mercury, letter 26 April 2005].
It is common knowledge that individuals, including DPIWE staff, have brought fox carcases into Tasmania from time to time. I am reliably informed that Quarantine Tasmania sniffer dogs are unable to detect fox scent during routine quarantine training exercises.
The alternative explanation for the Symmons Plains incident is that this fox arrived as a dead fox after being shot on the Australian mainland; maybe even arriving as a frozen carcase.
Let me give reasons to support that proposition.
If someone was motivated to construct a convincing story that such an imported fox carcase had been shot in Tasmania, they would need to explain the period of time it took between shooting it and when the authorities were notified. If the body had been frozen there would be tell-tale signs that a pathologist would discover and the constructed story would be fallacious. Similarly any delays in transit of a fresh (unfrozen) body – from the site of shooting on the mainland to the time Tasmanian authorities are notified – would naturally attract questioning on the degree of decomposition in the body.
So how could a person get around this difficulty? One way would be to allow the dead fox to decompose for an extended time before notifying the authorities.
According to Bosworth he shot the fox on 13 September but he didn’t find it until 24 September.
A senior government pathologist, Dr Phillip Ladds then examined it. He confirmed it had been shot and reported that this animal was ‘badly decomposed with maggots through all soft tissues of the head and extending down to the stomach’. Ladds returned its stomach contents to Chris Emms. Dr Ladds wrote a very brief report and did no further work on the carcase. Maggots were found in the decomposed carcase, but there’s no indication that these fly larvae were collected for forensic purposes (i.e. for aging the carcase).
Two months earlier a skin allegedly from the dead fox photographed with two chaps by a road sign – C518 (Longford B51) – was posted to DPIWE. It too was very decomposed and stinking when the authorities received it.
In both these cases, the decomposition would make it impossible to tell if these foxes had been frozen.
Eric Bosworth states that, after finding the decomposed fox on the 24 September, he ‘threw it in the back of the ute and came straight home’ to Perth. He then rang a Parks & Wildlife Service officer.
Chris Emms says he accompanied Eric Bosworth and Scott Geeves to the site of the alleged shooting 3 days after Bosworth reported the incident.
And what of that endemic mouse found in the stomach of Bosworth’s fox?
In a statement made by Mr Emms he describes removing ‘feathers, bird feet, skin from a small mammal, shells of corby grubs, a tail of what looked like a skink, and a berry of some sort’ from the stomach.
All these recovered specimens were examined by various individuals, both within DPIWE and elsewhere. The only significant finding was provided by mammalian hair expert, Mr Hans Brunner.
Mr Emms states that he ‘sent the skin off to Hans Brunner’.
But the documents show that Mr Brunner provided an opinion based on ‘hair, bones and tooth’ from the fox’s stomach. He concluded that they ‘are of Pseudomys higginsi [a long-tailed mouse]’.
By Chris’ description the decomposed, maggot-infested stomach contained the ‘skin of a small mammal’; no other pieces of a small mammal, like the feet, tail, teeth or bones were detailed. But Mr Brunner made his finding on ‘hair, bones and tooth’.
Brunner confirmed that Chris had accurately identified the skin from the decomposing fox stomach was indeed from ‘a small mammal’ – a long-tailed mouse. But at the time Chris collected it, how did he know the skin was from a small mammal?
Without other visually familiar pieces of small mammal – like the feet, a tail, a skull, teeth or some bones – most investigators would be hard-pressed to know that a piece of skin was ‘from a small mammal’.
Maybe Chris was being rather imprecise in calling it ‘skin’; maybe he did find other pieces of the small mammal which he neglected to mention in his report. As Chris wrote his final incident report after he received Brunner’s report, maybe that’s why he wrote what he wrote.
The difficulty for Chris here is that he has been (1) the interviewer of Bosworth & Geeves (taking statements from both men), (2) the inspector/investigator of the incident site, (3) the collector of the forensic samples from the fox and (4) the official reporter. He was acting as the impartial assessor and a person who, with knowledge of all the evidences, wrote up, in retrospect, the detail of his sampling.
This would, I believe, be a significant oversight in the rules of evidence.
Ever since October 2001 the DPIWE and the State Government has always placed great store on the discovery of the long-tailed mouse in the stomach of this fox. It was the crucial piece of evidence. This finding represented the only forensic result that supported the contention that a fox had existed and hunted in the Tasmanian environment.
In my opinion, the usefulness of this piece of evidence can only be considered sound evidence if two criteria are met:
(a) there is clarification on Mr Emms investigation report dated 17 October 2001 and an independent assessment of documented continuity in the timeline between the initial report of the fox’s presence in the paddock at Symmons Plains and the submission of forensic materials to Mr Hans Brunner, and
(b) the opportunity for this material evidence (and any remaining material from the fox’s stomach) to be re-examined by other experienced mammalogists capable of differentiating between the hair, bones and teeth of Australian mammals, to determine whether the specimens from the fox’s stomach were without question from the endemic long-tailed mouse (Pseudomys higginsi). In short, a second professional opinion is required.