Rumour has it that everything in so-called Australia can kill you. Cassowaries don’t do much to dispel those rumours. Not only do they look terrifyingly similar to the velociraptors in the Jurassic Park franchise with their three-pronged claws, but the bulging, fleshy casque that sits above their beak makes them seem even more intimidating. This hellish reputation is not helped by the news, which situates cassowaries as beastly killers, and the softer side of this large bird is, unjustifiably, ignored.
Australians measure the worth of an animal by its relationship to humankind. Western thinkers see the ecosystem as a pyramid with man dominating the top position, whereas many non-western cultures see no separation or hierarchy, instead envisioning a spheric symbiosis where all creatures are one. Cassowaries rest in the rainforests of north-east Queensland, a place with a rich history and culture that is imbued within the cassowary, where the western ideals of hierarchy cannot exist.
A prime example of this is the cassowary’s significant composting expertise. In year 5, I wrote a report on cassowaries and painted a picture of a great blue bird that strode under the lush green canopy of the rainforest, eating seeds and helping the forest grow larger and stronger. While omnivorous by nature, cassowaries primarily eat the fruit that falls on to the rainforest floor. When digesting food, the seeds of these fruits are left whole when passed. In short, the cassowary poops out its digested food and, in doing so, plants a full, ripe seed right into its very own soon-to-be compost heap. A new tree grows, its fruit falls, cassowary eats it and excretes the seed, and the cycle goes on.
If that alone isn’t something to write home about, cassowaries have no concept of patriarchy and cassowary dads are better than most human dads. What human dads might call “babysitting” is literally baby-sitting for cassowary dads, who will incubate their eggs for 50 days and then spend another 18 months raising their chicks while Mama cassowary gets the work done – namely finding other baby-daddies to procreate with and passing undigested fruit seeds all over the forest floor. Like many human dads, however, cassowaries are solitary creatures, with the dads fleeing the nest and the adult cassowaries mingling only to mate – and then going home to nap, probably. This could be one of the many reasons why we should really just leave these shy, possibly anxious, introverts alone.
The most important thing I learned in my hard-hitting, Walkey-deserving school report was that cassowaries are an endangered species. The disturbance of their habitat, cars, humans and wild animals such as dogs and pigs are some of the primary threats to cassowaries. Humans trying to domesticate cassowaries – or at least have cassowaries become reliant on them in zoos and on farms – aren’t actually doing themselves or their favourite flightless bird any favours as this reliance can cause cassowaries to become even more aggressive, which is when we hear news stories about fatal attacks.
It was after learning all of this that this sense of fear made sense – not the human’s fear, but the fear cassowaries must experience as their home is continually invaded and infested by introduced species: cars, non-native animals, large human populations. Imagine these invading forces coming in your home, knocking down the foundations, making a general mess of the place; would you not want to lash out just a tiny bit?
A healthy fear of an actual living dinosaur that can definitely kill you is natural. Warranted, even. Hopefully, this fear will keep you out of the cassowaries’ land – athough, knowing Australia, this won’t ever be the case. We need to prevent a damaging bias from entering into our treatment of a creature that, quite frankly, just wants to be left alone.
You are right to be scared of cassowaries, but like all animals that can and will definitely kill you, they’re probably more scared of you than you are of them. Instead of letting that fear drive your dislike for our giant, quill-covered friend, put that energy into saving this endangered species from becoming just another fossil in a museum gallery. The ecosystem is not a pyramid, it’s a circle that we’re all part of; a system where there is no ego, where respect and gratitude for the part that native birds play is paramount, where the western ideals of hierarchy cannot exist.
• Raelee Lancaster is a writer, collaborator and creative producer based in Brisbane