Our Planet Still Has Secrets: Talking Tasmanian Tigers with Journalist Brooke Jarvis

AP Photo/Carrie Osgood

Americans report seeing Bigfoot with surprising frequency, yet no one has ever confirmed Bigfoot’s existence. The Tasmanian Tiger was real. Even though the last confirmed living tiger died in captivity in 1936, thousands of people have reported seeing the tiger in Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Some witnesses snap photos. Some shoot footage. Still no one has been able to confirm that the extinct animal exits. For The New Yorker, journalist Brooke Jarvis traveled to the rugged Australian island to investigate both the tiger and the culture of truth-seekers surrounding it.

All sightings bring up questions of witness reliability, the psychology of perception, and contaminated memory. Tasmanians’ insistence that they see tigers also suggests that, despite humanity’s best efforts, we haven’t ruined the entire earth, and that our overpopulated, mapped world still contains mysteries. If these tigers still exist, they also function as a form of ecological redemption, a way of absolving Tasmanians for their pillaging of the land and Aboriginal people. In the words of one Tasmanian wildlife expert, “the ongoing mystery of the thylacine isn’t really about the animal at all. It’s about us.”

Tasmania doesn’t appear regularly in the news. Photos of the island’s lush rainforests make it look like something from Out of the Silent Planet. How did you learn about this story? As a journalist, how do you find your stories in general?

I saw one of the headlines that makes the rounds occasionally — about a new sighting or new footage — and I had to know more. I didn’t think I was going to head into the bush and find a definitive answer, but that was never the point. Like everybody else I found the mystery compelling: We’re so used to thinking we have this old planet figured out that it felt like a debate left over from another era. And I wanted to explore that, why we still need and want this uncertainty in our know-it-all time, what that says about us.

Your second question is harder to answer. There are a million stories I research and mull but don’t pursue. I guess it’s less about finding stories than deciding which ones have the pieces to be really interesting: It’s great when there are large- and small-scale stories with different stakes that interlock with each other, and reveal things about each other, that have narrative and character but also big questions.

This idea that we need and want uncertainty ─ I love how you phrased that. Do you think that need for uncertainty is biological? Something about our inherent constitution as homo sapiens?

Well, I suppose there are a lot of manifestations of uncertainty, and we’re not fond of all of them! We want wonder and surprise and mystery and the feeling that the future isn’t all laid out for us. We also like to feel as though we’re in control of our lives and that we understand what’s happening to us and why. Go figure, humans being contradictory in our desires.

But in the context of this story, about our desire to still see mystery and uncertainty in the natural world, I think it has more to do with our present moment. For one, we’ve got a Mark-Twain-on-the-riverboat problem of sometimes feeling like we know so much about the world that it’s lost its poetry and mystery. (When of course there’s still so much we don’t know or understand). At the same time, we’re trying to come to terms with being this species that has enormous power to impact our environment and each other, but that hasn’t figured out how to wield that power without being incredibly destructive. So we live with a strange mix of hubris and vague, harder to face feelings of inadequacy and guilt and dread. For most of human history, uncertainty was basically where we lived: Our world was dangerous and unpredictable and chock full of forces we didn’t understand. But it wasn’t a comfortable place; we also always kept busy coming up with all kinds of creative explanations and rationales, ways to make the world seem more comprehensible. But when we’re the force of danger, when we understand more about our own impacts, the more appealing mystery sounds.

Your story is about the tiger, but it’s also about obsession, the psychology of perception and contaminated memory. What did you learn about the nature of obsession that you didn’t know before reporting this?

It’s not a coincidence that so many stories are about obsession in some form. People with a singular focus and passion are just inherently interesting… I always think about that line about wanting to want something as much as the moth wanted to extinguish itself in the flame. Obsession can be dangerous, but it can also simply be someone not being afraid to really intensely love or hope. Sometimes that’s a form of denial, but it’s usually complicated and interesting to try to figure out why.

I’m curious what locals though of your inquiries. Did anyone you spoke to think you were foolish for ever doubting the tiger’s existence? Did they hope that your article would prove once and for all that it still roamed the bush?

Sure, some thought I was foolish for having doubt about what seemed obvious to them. But they were also used to that reaction, and I think it was clear that I certainly wasn’t there to make fun of them, but rather to listen. Also, plenty of other locals surely thought that I was foolish to still be chasing these old rumors! But because my goal was to explore what the mystery meant to people, rather than to tell them that they were wrong or right, that left a lot of room for conversation with people with both viewpoints.

And no, I can’t imagine anybody thought for a moment that I would swoop in and provide a definitive answer to a mystery that’s been lingering for eighty years! Especially given the problem of proving a negative. Plus, believers are quite split on whether they would actually want the animal’s existence proven to the outside world: Some would love to be publicly vindicated, but many say they just want to know for themselves, because they are afraid of what would happen if the public found the animal. There were people who refused to go on the record with their sightings for that reason. And there were some, especially people on the mainland, who were glad for a chance to tell their story to someone who wasn’t there to roll their eyes at them.

Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? If so, have you ever had any unexplained sightings or strange experiences, be they Bigfoot or UFOs?

I do spend a lot of time outdoors. Hiking and camping are my big hobbies since childhood, and I like to pay attention to details — things like plant species and animal dens and scat and carcasses and bones and feathers — all these little signs that make you more aware of the patterns and events and lives that are all around you but mostly invisible to you. (Just about everyone I know now jokes about how much I like to inspect dead things that I find in the woods). But nope, though I live in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve never run across a Sasquatch.

So even though you didn’t go to Tasmania to find a definitive answer, did you return home believing that the tiger lives?

I’m not going to answer this one! It takes the fun out of it.

Read the New Yorker story