Accessibility links

San Diego Zoo Helps Endangered Tasmanian Devils

The Tasmanian Devil, an animal native to the Australian state of Tasmania, has become endangered by a rare contagious cancer. But now the San Diego Zoo is part of an international effort to save the species.

The Tasmanian Devil is known to children as a character in a cartoon, but the real devil is an iconic animal the size of a small dog in Tasmania.
Last October, four devils arrived at the San Diego Zoo.

A nocturnal animal, it has left its outdoor habitat this early morning and returned to the enclosure called its nest box. Senior keeper Jennifer Roesler says these meat-eaters play an important role in maintaining the natural balance of their native habitat.

“In the wild, they would generally eat kangaroo or any road kill, wombats, depending on where they are in Tasmania, but here in the San Diego Zoo, we feed them rats, mice, rabbits - a carnivore diet.”

She says devils in San Diego are adapting to their new environment.
”When we bring them in in the mornings, we usually give them a reward, generally a mouse.”

This reporter observed one savoring a dead mouse, eating the head and body, and finally gobbling down the tail.

These Tasmanian Devils are healthy, but between 40 and 90 percent of Tasmanian devils in the wild, depending on the region of Tasmania, have been killed by a rare cancer that is contagious.

Researchers in Australia are working to save the devils, says the San Diego Zoo Chief Life Sciences Officer Robert Wiese.

“They have over 500 that are in breeding programs that are disease-free and are available to be put out in the wild, and they are starting to do reintroduction programs at this time.”

He says the disease, first noticed in the 1990s, has devastated the devil population.

“There is still a part up in the northwest part of Tasmania where the disease has not reached yet, but it is anticipated it will reach there very quickly. And the disease is 100 percent fatal, as far as we know,” said Wiese.

As researchers try to understand the killer cancer, zoo workers in San Diego care for four healthy members of this threatened species. Four other Tasmanian Devils are housed at the Albuquerque BioPark in the U.S. state of New Mexico.