Harry Burrell’s thylacine: Part one

Harry Burrell's captive thylacine with chicken

Captive thylacine with bird. Picture: Harry Burrell, c. 1921. Source: Wikipedia.

Is this a real thylacine or a stuffed specimen?

I have been working on an analysis of the thylacine photographs by Harry Burrell. There is presently a debate surrounding the authenticity of the images, but I believe that I have strong enough evidence to prove that they are genuine. In this series of articles I will demonstrate my reasons for believing that Burrell’s photographs show a living thylacine.

The debate surrounding Burrell’s images was triggered by a report published in 2005 in Australian Zoologist magazine, in which animal studies writer Carol Freeman put forward her belief that the images had been staged using taxidermied specimens. I have great respect for the work of Carol Freeman, who has an understandably high and well deserved international reputation as a thylacine researcher. But unfortunately I strongly disagree with her findings, and I think that it is very important that the case for the authenticity of the images be put forward.

I have spent a considerable period of time studying this species, and I can see many indications that the animal in the images is indeed a living thylacine. This series of articles will detail my analysis of Harry Burrell’s thylacine photographs and hopefully generate further discussion on the topic.

For those who are not familiar with the debate surrounding the photographs, the following three fascinating articles will provide you with the material that has prompted my own research and thoughts on the issue:

Is this picture worth a thousand words: An analysis of Harry Burrell’s photograph of a thylacine with a chicken. By Carol Freeman, 2005.

The most photographed of thylacines: Mary Roberts’ Tyenna male – including a response to Freeman (2005) and a farewell to Laird ( 1968). By Robert Paddle, 2008.

On seeing the big picture: A reply to Paddle. By Carol Freeman, 2008

Why is the photograph so important?

On the Australian Museum website the question is posed: “If the thylacine is extinct does it matter if Harry Burrell’s was real?” I believe it does matter for two reasons:

1. All surviving thylacine material is of enormous historical, cultural and scientific value. Such material may take the form of preserved physical remains, historical documentation (both written and pictorial), or authentic film and photographic footage – all of which deepen our understanding of the thylacine and contribute to our knowledge of the tragedy of its extinction. Surviving photographs of captive individuals help us to not only gain a clear idea of the physical appearance of the animal, but also may provide some indication of the health and numbers of the wild populations present at the time the photographs were taken. I believe that Burrell’s thylacine is a living individual that is in good health and physical condition – indicating that around 1921, when the photographs were taken, that more such individuals could be found in the wild at that time. The glass plate negatives are also of remarkable quality, and are an invaluable visual documentation of this lost species.

2. Although Carol Freeman has stated that she did not intend to harm the reputation of Burrell (Freeman 2008), there can be no denying that her research has cast a shadow over Burrell and portrayed him as a man with deceptive  intentions. From my own research I feel that Burrell would be horrified by any allegations that implicated him in the deliberate attempt to portray the thylacine as a ferocious pest. Given the vast contribution that Burrell made to our understanding and appreciation of Australian mammals (see Paddle 2008), it seems inconceivable that he would risk  his reputation, his legacy and the well-being of wild thylacines or any native species by engaging in activities that would harm conservation measures.

Does the photograph vilify the thylacine?

Given Carol Freeman’s wider concerns  on “representations of extinct and threatened species, ethics in human-animal relations and visualisations of animals in popular culture and wildlife documentaries”, it is entirely understandable that she has interpreted Burrell’s photograph of a thylacine with a chicken as a negative and potentially damaging image. However, as I shall explain in following articles, the perception of the thylacine as a threat to poultry is very much a recent construction of the animal, and differs greatly from opinions and knowledge of thylacine behaviour in 1921, when the sight of a captive thylacine eating a chicken would not have been at all unusual – nor offensive to photograph.

Read more articles on Burrell’s thylacine.