Would a Dingo Really Eat Your Baby?

Andrew Haysom/istock via getty images
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.