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Paper Tiger

A Visual History of the Thylacine

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Carol Freeman

Images of animals generate perceptions that have a profound effect on attitudes toward species. Can representations contribute to their extinction? Paper Tiger considers the role of illustrations in the demise of the thylacine or Tasmanian ‘tiger’. It critiques 80 engravings, lithographs, drawings and photographs published between 1808 and 1936, paying attention to the messages they convey, the politics of representation, and the impact on the lives of animals. This approach challenges conventional histories, offers new understandings of human-animal interactions, and presents a chilling story of just how misleading and powerful visual representation can be. It demonstrates how pictures, together with words, can have a vital influence on species’ survival.

" … this book is a remarkable achievement. Freeman writes thoughtfully, carefully and with force, and the book is a very good read."’ (Nigel Rothfels, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
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Carol Freeman

Abstract

The thylacine was a shy and elusive nonhuman animal who survived in small numbers on the island of Tasmania, Australia, when European settlers arrived in 1803. After a deliberate campaign of eradication, the species disappeared 130 years later. Visual and verbal constructions in the nineteenth century labeled the thylacine a ferocious predator, but photographs of individuals in British and American zoos that were used to illustrate early twentieth-century zoological works presented a very different impression of the animal. The publication of these photographs, however, had little effect on the relentless progress of extermination. This essay focuses on the relationship between photographs of thylacines and the process of extinction, between images and words, and between pictures of dead animals and live ones. The procedures, claims, and limitations of photography are crucial to the messages generated by these images and to the role they played in the representation of the species. This essay explains why the medium of photography and pleas for preservation could not save the thylacine.