When the infectious devil cancer — believed to be spread when devils bite one another — turned up in a Tasmanian wildlife park in healthy animals, the State Government knew they would ‘get it in the neck’ — this disease was coming back home to bite them!

Despite all the words, their rhetoric didn’t match reality. The program charged with managing the devil facial tumour disease where aware that captive devils could be vulnerable and they knew from their own experience that without a test to detect carriers of this ‘disease’ there was no way of telling animals were infected and affected until they showed the tell-tale tumours on the face or in the mouth. And with no knowledge of the incubation period — the time from infective exposure to the onset of obvious tumour — it would be difficult to determine when the animals might have been exposed or how long before they show DFT. And on top of that if any captive devils show the disease it means that all devils ‘in-contact’ must be considered exposed as well.

Nothing new here for the DFTD program team, but the embarrassment is that the Australian government decided to send devils from this park to the other side of the world based on a deception.

In February 2006 Tasmanian Senator Milne asked AQIS about the permit for the export of Tasmanian devils to Denmark.  Answer: “AQIS has been advised by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment that the animals sourced for export are from a captive breeding program and no animals within the facility have ever shown signs of devil facial tumour disease. The facility is located in a region well away from the area where the disease has occurred.”  Yet in December 2004, DPIW had produced a document stating that, “… all wildlife parks are located in the DFTD high risk zone.”

And the tragedy is, I believe, it could have been averted if the Government veterinarians had been allowed to be more actively involved in the biosecurity & disease management aspects of the DFTD program. If DFTD had been a notifiable infectious disease affecting domestic animals that’s precisely what would have happened! But because this is ONLY a disease of a non-commercial wild animal, the wildlife parks keeping and breeding devils have not had anything like that involvement. That is a serious short-coming. 

In August 2005 DPIW held a technical workshop on DFTD in Hobart; all the technical papers presented were not made part of the published report; they were withheld from the pdf download and were withheld from the public.

Why the secrecy about a taxpayer-funded response to a significant disease in THE ANIMAL that people most identify with Tasmania?

Pertinent to this article, some documents from the workshop show two short-term projects were identified as ‘priorities’:
 
“To develop a strategy for management of an outbreak of DFT in a captive devil population.” 

“Protect the valuable stock in wildlife parks, maintaining them as disease-free populations.”
 
And here are some statements from Department of Primary Industry & Water specifically prepared to support the biosecurity and quarantine issues within the government-operated DFT program.
   
“Due to a limited understanding of DFTD, as a precautionary measure an embargo is in place on the movement of devils between Tasmanian wildlife parks, and export of devils out if the state.”
 
“Tasmanian wildlife parks are located in rural areas and contain relatively small animal collections that are managed by private operators and few staff. …Hygiene and waste management strategies vary between establishments but fairly low level standards, being similar to practices employed buy private agricultural industry [i.e. farms]. None of the Tasmanian wildlife parks are registered under the Quarantine (Animal) Regulations.”
 
“In the specific case of DFTD devils kept in Tasmanian wildlife parks are considered to be at some risk because the establishments are located in areas of the state where free-ranging devil populations naturally occur, and due to the low biosecurity of these wildlife parks. Devils kept in wildlife parks that are located in areas of the state known to be confirmed disease zones are a higher potential risk.”
 
“There are currently eight (Dec 2004) wildlife parks in Tasmania, all of which are housing devils. The population totals approximately 75 subadult/adult animals and includes both captive-bred and wild-origin* animals.”
 
* - Due to the potential risk of DFTD, wildlife park operators have been advised to no longer accept any orphans or wild-origin animals.

[Reference: “Reducing the potential for transmission of the Devil Facial Tumour (DFTD) to captive Tasmanian devils.” - December 2004]
 
And here an experienced senior government veterinarian spelled out “THE BASICS OF A BIOSECURITY PROGRAM”
 
“Thus a biosecurity program for DFTD involves minimising the risk of direct and indirect contact between captive and infected wild devils and also maintaining as much distance between captive and infected wild devils, as possible.”
 
“Reducing the risk of possible spread within and between wildlife parks is important until we have a test which can detect ‘infection’ in clinically normal devils.”
 
[Reference: “APPLYING THE PRINCIPLES OF BIOSECURITY TO DEVIL FACIAL TUMOUR DISEASE (DFTD)” - November 2004]

As these statements from DPIW show, even when dealing with a new & emerging disease for which there is much uncertainty, there were still ‘precautionary principles’ and biosecurity standards that could have and should have been applied and enforced. 

These are the consequences of someone else’s watch; I hope the new program leaders will allow more open communication and collaboration for the poor devil that could fast be losing its grip on survival in the wild …

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David Obendorf

In February 2006 Tasmanian Senator Milne asked AQIS about the permit for the export of Tasmanian devils to Denmark.  Answer: “AQIS has been advised by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment that the animals sourced for export are from a captive breeding program and no animals within the facility have ever shown signs of devil facial tumour disease. The facility is located in a region well away from the area where the disease has occurred.”  Yet in December 2004, DPIW had produced a document stating that, “… all wildlife parks are located in the DFTD high risk zone.”

And the tragedy is, I believe, it could have been averted if the Government veterinarians had been allowed to be more actively involved in the biosecurity & disease management aspects of the DFTD program. If DFTD had been a notifiable infectious disease affecting domestic animals that’s precisely what would have happened! But because this is ONLY a disease of a non-commercial wild animal, the wildlife parks keeping and breeding devils have not had anything like that involvement. That is a serious short-coming.