Two years after falling from the sky Wandi the dingo is changing attitudes to his species

Wandiligong the dingo was just five weeks old when he made international headlines after being snatched by an enormous eagle and dropped into a back yard in Victoria’s mountainous high country.

Remarkably unscathed – bar sore paws and a few claw marks – little Wandi was soon discovered to be a 100% alpine dingo – his incredible fall from the sky proof that purebred dingoes continue to survive on the east coast of Australia.

Two years later, the world’s most famous dingo has fathered six cubs of his own, and become the subject of award-winning Melbourne author Favel Parrett’s first children’s book.

“This is the most important book I’ve ever written,” Parett says, who has published three novels including the award-winning There Was Still Love.

“The stakes are so high, because there’s not much time left [before dingoes become extinct]. If I can encourage any children to love the apex predator for what they are, I’ll be so happy.”

Parrett has volunteered at the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre in Toolern Vale, since 2019 – the year Wandi arrived.

“I came on a cub tour, thinking I would just be seeing some cute animals, and the tour guide brought [dingo] Pumbah up and told us ‘dingoes can hear your heartbeat, every single one of them’,” Parrett says.

“Pumbah looked at me in the eye for three seconds, and that was it.

“It was like being in the presence of greatness. I know that sounds crazy, but an animal whose senses are so much more advanced than ours, in so many ways …”

The Dingo Discovery Sanctuary was founded by Australian Dingo Foundation president Lyn Watson two decades ago, on her private property at the foothills of the Macedon ranges.

Favel Parett, plays with Wandi and Wandi’s partner Hermione
Dingo Discovery Sanctuary, Research and Education Centre volunteer and author Favel Parett, plays with Wandi and Wandi’s partner Hermione. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

The pens overlook acres of private forest – behind it the city, the bay and the You Yangs mountain range.

Today, the sanctuary hosts 48 dingoes and runs education programs and research, with regular visits from PhD students and universities.

Some of the “wild born” rescues at the sanctuary have traumatic pasts – one was smuggled off Fraser Island in an esky and chained outside a car yard as a guard dog, while others were born and raised there.

But Parrett says the discovery of Wandi, who has no evidence of domestic dog DNA, was their long-awaited miracle.

“It sounds crazy, but we believe it’s Wandi’s destiny to have come here,” Parrett says.

“In the creation story of the Kulin nation, Bunjil is the creation god and comes in the form of a wedge-tailed eagle … he creates all the animals and plants, and humans, and after 80,000 years, becomes the Southern Cross with his wife and sons.

“We see Bunjil every day, there’s two wedge tails here … and Lyn once said, ‘if we don’t get a wild cub we’ll never be able to prove there’s wild dingoes out there, because we breed here’.

“The next week, they said we’ve got a wild cub in Wandiligong. It was the greatest thing that could have happened for us. We had proof then. His parents are pure, his brothers and sisters are pure, and we know there’s more. That means so much to us. Now, we’ve got to fight as hard as we can.”

Since his rescue, Wandi’s official Instagram account has clocked up more than 56k likes, complete with his own merchandise – for $17, fans can acquire a Wandi plush toy, including bandana, or, at $5 a pop, a custom Wandi pin.

In 2008, the dingo was listed as “threatened” in Victoria, but in many regional communities, dingoes are still considered vermin and a threat to livestock and livelihoods.

Favel Parett’s book Wandi
Favel Parett’s book Wandi. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

To this day, their carcasses are strung up in trees on the side of rural roads as a form of communication between farmers, or a political statement.

Unlike purebred dingoes, feral and wild populations of dogs and dingo-dog hybrids are an established pest in Victoria, commonly referred to as “wild dogs”.

But a University of New South Wales study released this year found 99% of wild canines tested were pure dingoes or hybrids that have more than 50% dingo genes.

Hybrids can appear very similar to their purebred counterparts, making it almost impossible to ensure they’re not inadvertently destroyed in wild dog control programs.

“‘Wild dog’ isn’t a scientific term – it’s a euphemism,” researcher Kylie Cairns says.

“Dingoes are a native Australian animal, and many people don’t like the idea of using lethal control on native animals. The term ‘wild dog’ is often used in government legislation when talking about lethal control of dingo populations.”

Dingoes can’t process grain or fat, and before colonisation hunted kangaroos by sensing the heartbeat, sometimes from up to 25m away, of mothers carrying young. Suppressing dingo populations can lead to growth in kangaroo numbers, which can in turn jeopardise wider conservation efforts.

UNSW professor Mike Letnic says dingoes play a fundamental role in shaping ecosystems, by keeping the number of herbivores and smaller predators in check.

“Apex predators’ effects can trickle all the way through ecosystems and even extend to plants and soils,” he says.

The past three years at the sanctuary have been somewhat of an awakening for Parrett, too, on what sets dingoes apart from their canine relatives, and other native Australian species.

Nowadays, she describes dingoes as “a cat in a dog suit”.

“They can climb, they don’t bark, they’re very flexible. The reason Wandi survived falling from the sky, is when you pick a dingo up, they become all floppy,” she says.

“And they mate for life in the wild, so strongly that when one dies, the other will sometimes die of a broken heart.”

Soon after Wandi’s arrival, the sanctuary matchmakers paired him with the slightly older Hermione. Parrett says her pregnancy was a period of great transformation for Wandi.

“He would normally try to steal her food every day, we’d have to stand there and say ‘no,’” she says.

“Then when she was pregnant, he started letting her have his food, and then he started doing this bizarre beautiful thing where he would hoard food in the nesting box so when she gave birth, she’d be OK to stay there for days.

“I saw him taking his bowl into the box and thought ‘what are you doing’, and he had all these little piles of food … we were so surprised because he’s such a greedy guts normally, but he changed.”

Dingoes share parenthood as an equal partnership. The mum provides milk, while the father regurgitates food and keeps a vigil for eagles and prey.

“It’s really uncommon for animals to share the parenting, but that’s why they’re so beautiful – they’re so sensitive. Dingoes who’ve died here, their partners get so depressed they won’t eat, they grieve,” Parrett says.

The sanctuary volunteers still wonder, from time to time, whether Wandi’s parents are alive, somewhere in the high country, where, decades earlier, Ned Kelly hid in ravines and tall treetops.

They don’t think the odds are high.

“The eagle probably saved his life in a way,” Parrett says.

“We’re just so grateful he’s here. And now, the story is complete with his cubs, and his belonging. He has his family now.”

Wandi is out on Wednesday 29 September with Hachette Australia.


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