Image for Believing everything… knowing very little

The Tasmanian Fox Program has relied on exaggeration, mis-interpretation and fabrication to publicly declare that Tasmania had a wild fox population.  ‘The hard evidence’ offered up was nothing more than fox exhibits that could never be linked to the landscape in which they were found.

Straightforward questions were asked about how the discovery of any particular new exhibit could be verified by thorough scientific assessment and then supported by follow-up findings. Publicity through the newspapers and interviews with local personalities became the way the fox storyline was sold to the populace.

It worked! A categorical statement uttered by an authority figure would be accepted uncritically. Throw in words like ‘scientific’, ‘evidence’, ‘irrefutable’, ‘conclusively’ and ‘certainty’; the media did the rest. The need to build a media profile and win over public confidence was the goal. An interested pack of local reporters hungrily fed off the latest fox find and they duly wrote the sensational headlines that cemented another brick in the Tasmanian fox fire-wall.

If just one instance of exaggeration had been the exception to an overall sound invasive species program no one would be critical. Yet regrettably, exaggeration, assumption, mis-representation and fabrication has been the modus operandi from the get go.

As a public program - that is, one initiated by our government, funded by taxpayers and employing or contracting people within government bureaucracies - the fox program is self-serving and incestuous. It’s a horrible comparison to make, but as some would know serious damage is done by keeping lies and cover-up ‘in the family’.

Back to our fox threat - we are told by DPIPWE personalities that our foxes are ‘very intelligent, highly elusive and widespread’. Yet Simon De Little agreed on this website that what the public is asked to accept ‘does not make sense’. As a pathologist I can only agree.

Mr De Little - who has spent many hours interviewing key personalities in this saga -  recently wrote that there were ‘managers who had political agendas’, ‘people who were completely unfit for work’, ‘various Ministers who were both negligent and overbearing’ and ‘a sensationalist tabloid media who also got every fact wrong’.

I have been constantly amazed at the numerous changes in significant fox incidents that come to light after a story line is publicly questioned but they are never officially corrected but as time as gone on, they are rarely referred to again. The advantage of such humbugging the populace was taken and the record never corrected!

Perhaps the first example of official use of exaggeration and mis-interpretation based on fabricated exhibits occurred in later 2001.

In November 2001 the then fox taskforce manager, Peter Mooney was interviewed by Alexandra de Blas for the ABC radio Earthbeat program. She asked him if there was any evidence the fox had become established in Tasmania.

Peter Mooney: “Well the main evidence is that we’ve had analysis done of a carcase that was handed in to us about a month ago and the gut contents have come up to be conclusively Tasmanian foods; in other words that Tasmanian native rats, Tasmanian skinks, endemic species that only exist in Tasmania. And also we’ve had other material handed to us from other foxes which have been allegedly shot in Tasmania, and the DNA sampling of those two different animals has come out to prove that they’re actually siblings… so that means, we’ve had a litter.”

Then in 2002, the official hunting newsletter published by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries & Water - Game Tracks - had an article entitled: The Tasmanian fox facts and information.

‘A hunter shot a male fox at Symmons Plains in October 2001. Analysis of the stomach contents showed that it had been feeding on a variety of materials, including corby grubs, berries, a bird, a skink and a small mammal. On examination, some fur was identified as being the remains of a native long-tailed rat, Pseudomys higginsi. The rat is endemic to Tasmania. The evidence supported the theory that this fox was living in the Symmons Plains area. We still didn’t know if this was the only one. Finally DNA testing on the Symmons Plains fox showed that it was a relative of a fox allegedly shot in the Longford area by two anonymous hunters. Without teeth from this animal, it was impossible to say if it was a sibling or an older fox, possibly a parent or a cousin.What the evidence did support was the fact that we have a population of foxes living in the Longford area. Based on over 80 reports of sightings from all over the State it would appear that this issue [wild foxes] is not isolated to just the Longord area. ’

Leaving aside Mr Mooney’s exaggerations in his interview there are a number of mis-interpretations and assumptions:

Firstly, Eric Bosworth told a group of his fellow hunters the fox was shot in Victoria and brought to Tasmania.

Secondly the provenance of the fox skin posted to PWS was always dubious and more so when three years later Nick Mooney described the incident as ‘probably a hoax’.

Thirdly, the DNA testing laboratory did not show that Mr Bosworth’s dead fox and the fox skin posted to PWS were ‘siblings’.

And finally the ‘conclusively Tasmanian foods’ Chris Emms recovered from the fox stomach were just based on ‘hair’ that was deemed to be from a Pseudomys higginsi, but this critical exhibit cannot be re-examined because it was thrown away.

The official view was that ‘we have a population of foxes living in the Longford area’. Others concluded that these exhibits were merely transportable fox remains and that these two exhibits, which Mr Mooney sought to connect as ‘siblings’, had a greater likelihood of being fabricated. The incidents did not make sense and neither did the official interpretation.

This was the beginning of a recurring pattern of exaggeration and mis-interpretation based on evidence of questionable provenace or blatant fabrication; that pattern has hardly changed until this year. Download:

Legislative_Council_Thursday_27_October_2011_Adjournment_Debate_-_Foxes.doc