In the end, it appears that a dingo really did take her baby.
In 1980, 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s campsite near Uluru, the giant sandstone outcropping also known as Ayers Rock, prompting her hysterical mother to tell authorities that her daughter had been abducted by a dingo — one of the wild, wolf-like canines that has coexisted uneasily with humans on the Australian continent for some 5,000 years. But officials, suspecting foul play, accused Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, of murder. In 1982 she was convicted and sent to prison. The ruling was overturned 3 years later, and Chamberlain’s saga was made into a 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep (whose uttered the immortal line, “The dingo’s got my baby!”)
But for 32 years, Azaria’s fate was never conclusively solved — until Tuesday, when a coroner in the northern Australian city of Darwin ruled that she had in fact been abducted and killed by a dingo.
The ruling is a sign of how much more scientists understand about the animal now, says Elaine Kirchner, a dingo expert who for the past 20 years has managed the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo Australian Adventure exhibit. When the Chamberlain case first went public in 1980, it was the first reported case of a dingo killing a small child; recent years have yielded three documented fatal attacks against children in Australia.
Kirchner, who has worked with dingoes in Australia and at the Indiana zoo, says that the canines are more closely related to wolves than domestic dogs in that they breed only once per year, they howl instead of bark and they live together in loose packs (they “hang out where they can hear each other, but not necessarily see each other every day,” she says).
Dingoes aren’t a particularly large species, which led many to believe in 1980 that such an animal couldn’t abduct a child. The largest of the nine dingoes at the Fort Wayne zoo weighs about 44 pounds. But what dingoes lack in size, they make up in street smarts. “They are highly, highly intelligent,” Kirchner says. “They are smarter than most of the people around them.
“If they want to do something, they will,” she says. “If they are trying to get a mole, they will listen for it, sniff for it, move sticks out of the way, even use tools to an extent. They learn very, very quickly.”
She recounted a story from a sanctuary she works with outside Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria, in which handlers placed food just out of the reach of the dingoes. The largest male dragged a table near the food and placed it in such a way so that only he could reach the food, not any of the smaller animals. Sly.
Each pack of wild dingoes is led by an alpha male and an alpha female and usually makes up offspring from the previous year’s litters. They generally hunt separately, except when working to take down large prey together. But, most often, dingoes would rather stick to more manageable meals, such as rabbits and small wallabies, Kirchner says. And that is why she is personally skeptical of this week’s ruling, although after more than three decades without closure the verdict is being overwhelmingly welcomed in Australia.
“My take is that I don’t think anybody is ever going to truly know what happened there,” Kirchner says. “My personal opinion is that a dingo probably didn’t do it.” She says that dingoes have long had a bad rap among Australians, who vilify the animals for preying on agricultural livestock such as sheep. Kirchner speculates that the most likely culprit in the death of Azaria Chamberlain isn’t actually a dingo but the feral offspring of a dingo and a larger canine, such as a German shepherd. Such hybridized animals “will easily take whatever prey they can find,” she says. “A dingo would much rather a rabbit.”
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