Would a Dingo Really Eat Your Baby?

Andrew Haysom/istock via getty images
Andrew Haysom/istock via getty images

Every Seinfeld fan remembers the scene in which Elaine broke out her best Australian accent and dingo theory. Are dingoes really known for eating small children? And what was she referencing with the accent?

Just what is a dingo?

Dingoes are wild dogs found only in Australia and Southeast Asia. Scientists believe that the dingo made its first appearance Down Under somewhere around 3,000 years ago, and those early Aussie dingoes were possibly descendants of their Asian counterparts.

Although dingoes have interbred with domesticated dogs over the centuries, they’re still pretty ferocious eaters. Dingoes are opportunistic hunters and scavengers, and they’ll eat anything from bugs to buffalo to fruit to garbage.

Where did this baby-eating story originate?

The pop-culture idea of a dingo eating a baby can be traced back to one of Australia’s most infamous tragedies. On the night of August 17, 1980, nine-week-old girl Azaria Chamberlain disappeared while on a camping trip at Ayers Rock with her family.

Chamberlain’s parents, Lindy and Michael, immediately feared that the local wild dogs had snatched their daughter. Lindy thought that she saw a dog fleeing the campsite with something large in its jaws, which led her to exclaim, “A dingo’s got my baby!”

Azaria never returned, and searchers never located her body. Authorities initially bought the Chamberlains’ story that a dingo had absconded with her daughter, but a second inquest into the disappearance in 1981 revealed some apparently damning evidence. The Chamberlains’ car contained traces of fetal hemoglobin, which is only found in young infants, and a recovered piece of the girl’s clothing had a handprint on it. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Prosecutors and investigators developed a theory than Lindy Chamberlain had killed her daughter and disposed of the body, then used the dingo story as a ruse to explain Azaria’s disappearance. The theory may not have been airtight, but it was enough to get Lindy Chamberlain convicted of murder and sentenced to life. Michael Chamberlain received a suspended sentence for being an accessory after the fact. The High Court denied the Chamberlains’ appeals, and Lindy remained in prison.

Lindy spent over three years in Darwin Prison before she caught a lucky break in 1986. Azaria’s missing jacket finally turned up in a patch of scrubby land near Ayers Rock where she disappeared. The area where the jacket was found was dotted with dingo dens, a fact that added significant credibility to the Chamberlains’ initial story. Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison, and the courts overturned both Chamberlains’ convictions in 1988 following a new investigation.

It seems plausible that dingoes were actually responsible for Azaria’s disappearance and death, but the dogs still haven’t officially received the blame. A third coroner’s inquest in 1995 resulted in her cause of death being listed as “unknown.” In late 2010 the Australian government reopened the case for a fourth time after the girl’s mother, now Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, campaigned to have the girl’s death certificate changed to include the dingo attack as her cause of death.

So are there any conclusive reports of dingoes eating babies?

Yes. While Australians have known for years that dingoes can savagely attack calves and sheep, the Chamberlains’ story about a dingo stealing their baby seemed a bit farfetched in 1980. Since then, though, there have been tragic examples of dingo attacks. Most notably, in 2001, two dingoes mauled and killed nine-year-old Clinton Gage on Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland. In 1998 a dingo dragged 13-month-old Casey Rowles out of her family’s tent, but her father moved quickly enough to rescue her from the dog.

How did the “A dingo ate my baby!” line get such pop-culture traction?

As we mentioned above, the disappearance and subsequent trials were national sensations in Australia. The case probably moved up on the American radar with the 1988 film Evil Angels (released as A Cry in the Dark in the U.S.). The film starred Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain and Sam Neill as Michael Chamberlain, and while it didn’t do huge numbers at the box office, it got a nice critical buzz. (In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the ninth-best courtroom drama of all time.)

The line “Maybe the dingo ate your baby?” got even greater exposure with Elaine’s joke in the 1991 Seinfeld episode “The Stranded,” and the quip has become a pop-culture staple ever since. One notable example: in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character Oz’s band is called Dingoes Ate My Baby.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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