If you were looking for a character to base your next fictional masterpiece on, you couldn’t do much better than Tom Varney.
A resident of Queensland, Australia, Varney is a novelist’s dream. He’s a real-life combination of Crocodile Dundee and Cinderella manâ€”a walking, breathing picture of tragedy, triumph and redemption rolled into one man.
Now a legend from Down Under for his exploits as a wild dog hunter, Varney first hit bottom in a padded prison cell, found God and then emerged as a pioneer of wild dog hunting techniques for an entire generation of Australian hunters.
As Varney tells the story, he was like an Australian brushfire that couldn’t be stopped.
“I was just a terrible, angry man,” Varney said. “It actually just about destroyed my life. I shed a tear every day when I think about that. AndÂ today, the contrast to that old life makes it even harder to believe I was that same man.”
It started with the bodybuilding and constant drinking, which led to regular late night brawls outside the hotels in his hometown of Bairnsdale. His rampant alcoholism soon morphed into fits of rage directed at local police, including setting fire to squad cars, chasing cops through town with a handgun, physically assaulting officers and crashing down main street on a high-speed chase with the same local authorities.
Varney was let out on bail several times, only to return a few days or weeks later with a new alcohol induced rap sheet and a little less of his mind intact. One of the lowest points, Varney said, was when he was forced to turn in his hunting rifles. As a respected marksman in his local community, losing the ability to hunt was devastating.
Along the way, Varney was declared criminally insane and was listed as one of Victoria’s 48 worst lunatics. He had 14 electric shock treatments to drive away his demons and went through rehab. None of it stuck. Varney attempted to escape from a rehab center with two friends but they didn’t make it very farâ€”just a few blocks away from the treatment center, they drowned themselves in liquor until one of his friends died.
It looked like prison or death would claim Varney for good. He repeatedly failed treatment programs and couldn’t cure his rage. In the blackest corner of his own personal hell, a fellow inmate handed him a Bible and said, “Tom, God is your only hope.”
It was then that he found God, got sober and started taking care of his wife and two young daughters. He got a steady job as a concrete man and set about helping, rather than hurting, his fellow man.
“Every time I see a policeman I personally thank him for his service and commend him for the job he’s doing,” Varney said. It’s just his way of showing that real change is possible.
It took him nearly 20 years to get his rifles back, but he eventually returned to his childhood passion…hunting. After spending so many years destroying lives, he found a way to use his talents for good: He tracked, called and killed the wild dogs that constantly ravaged local farmers’ livestock and pets. He found joy hunting with his son, and even police officers from his community.
For 15 years he hunted every single day with his .223 rifle, killing 600 dogs in a four-year span and thousands in his career. With his son Thomas he has produced numerous videos and DVDs, demonstrating his ability to call in entire packs of wild dogs. His videos have also made their way to YouTube, where you can watch Varney bringing in dogs with just his two hands or a simple distress call.
Varney is retired from hunting now and spends most of his energy recovering from chemotherapy treatments and surgery after doctors removed a cancerous spot from his brain. But his influence remains, as scores of Australian “doggers” follow in his footsteps, employing his techniques and helping farmers deal with plague-like numbers of wild dogs.
A good number of Australian doggers who claim to be a part of the next generation of hunters have said Varney is always eager to give advice or help in any way he can. When asked why so many of these younger hunters view him as a legend, Varney said he’s just trying to give a little back.
“As a Christian, I believe it is more blessed to give than to receive,” he said. “When I send out my DVDs, I include my book for free and send them a few additional DVDs. I love to help others.”
The Wild Dog Problem in Australia
Varney’s story is also a window into a much larger issue in Australiaâ€”the rampant destruction of a livestock industry by an ever burgeoning population of dingoes and hybrid wild dogs.
According to AgForce, an Australian group that labors on behalf of Queensland farmers and ranchers, wild dog populations have exploded in the last couple of decades. The group released a study from 2009 estimating the total economic cost of wild dogs on the Queensland grazing industry to be around $67 million a year. Of that total, calf losses represented $22 million annually, and sheep losses nearly $17 million.
While measures have been taken in the past to deal with the dingo threatâ€”a 2,500-kilometer dingo fence was built in 1885 to protect farmers and their livestock, and more recently 1080 poison has been promoted as a means of exterminationâ€”the dogs continue to multiply at alarming rates.
In a story published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in May 2013, Ian Townsend claimed that the wild dog and dingo problem has reached epidemic proportions. Based on numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, half a million sheep disappeared from central western Queensland between 2008 and 2011, and wool production fell 92 percent since 1990â€”down from 21 million sheep shorn each year to just 2 million.
It’s not just the fact that farmers have gone out of business or entire ranching-based towns have disappeared. It’s the way the dogs rip, tear and mutilate sheep and cattle, starting with lambs and calves first.
“[The wild dogs] take great chunks out of their back legs,” Rick Keogh, a grazier, told ABC. “They just get the sheep, chase it till it drops and then they eat the kidney out of it and just leave it to die. Some of them take two or three days to die. They’re one of the only animals that doesn’t actually kill its prey, they eat it alive. It’s just distressing to talk about.”
The Other Gray Wolf
It’s clear dingoes and wild dogs have been a destructive force in Australia when left unchecked, but like gray wolves in America, the dingo has suffered an identity crisis in the national consciousness of its people. On the one hand, the dingo has been glorified as a national treasure. On the other hand, farmers and landownersâ€”as well as government agenciesâ€”have classified the dingo and wild dog as a deadly nuisance, a pest and a threat.
As of 1993, the Australian National Kennel Club recognized the dingo as a legitimate breed for show, which led many people to raise them as pets. This only further complicates the discussion about how to handle rising dingo and wild dog numbers, since many people see those animals as pets, not predators.
A quick look at the comment section on Varney’s YouTube videos reveals the intense nature of the conversation in Australia.
“Why the hell do you shoot a dog? Are you gonna eat it? Stupid b___,” one commenter wrote.
From another commenter: “These dogs are not domesticated. They are not harmless, they are not kind. They will eat your pets, cattle, probably even your baby if they get to it. They are a large problem in Australia. Humans are a part of nature. This is nature playing out.”
Even people who said they love pet dogs were conflicted over the issue and had to admit its severity: “I am torn being a large dog owner. The wild dogs do terrible damage to livestock. It’s sad to see man’s best friend being shot, but I guess it’s needed to keep the numbers down. Also I wouldn’t like to let my 5-year-old daughter out to play in the back yard alone if I lived were these dogs roamed (sic).”
As is the case in the U.S. with wolves, Australia has both protected dingoes by allowing them to flourish in select areas, and tried to help ranchers deal with plague-like numbers of dogs after populations explode. The government lists the species as protected and is then forced to spend millions helping farmers deal with overpopulation, livestock losses and the spread of disease.
Interestingly enough, the dingo is actually classified as Canus lupus dingoâ€”a subspecies of the gray wolfâ€”so it makes sense that the situation in Australia has many similarities to the one in the U.S.
If anything, the alarming dingo problem is a foreshadow of things to come in the U.S. if wolf and coyote numbers aren’t effectively managed. As is the case stateside, Australian animal rights activists paint the dingo in an almost exclusively rosy light, even blaming the death of children in dingo attacks on the parents’ lack of situational awareness.
Since 1980, there have been at least 10 major dingo attacks, according to animal rights activist Jane Duckworth. One of the more serious incidents took place in 2001, when 9-year-old Clinton Gage was attacked and killed by dingoes. His brother survived after being badly mauled by the same pack of dogs.
According to ABC news, wild dog attacks on pets and children have been rapidly increasing in residential and urban fringe areas, causing Queensland officials to begin monitoring populations on a continual basis and implementing extermination initiatives. Not only do wild dogs kill pets, livestock and sometimes children, they also carry diseases into urban areas.
After spending nearly $100 million a year on dingo fences, government research, poison distribution, control initiatives and trapping methods, the great irony is that people like Tom Varney are still an essential tool for dealing with the wild dog problem.
“There is really nothing I can say to [animal rights activists] that will convince them these dogs should be shotâ€”not until they have their pet or livestock torn apart by wild dogs,” Varney said.
Charlie “Brick” Gilbey, a 64-year-old professional dogger who works round the clock to help protect farmers’ livestock, told The Australian that people who don’t think doggers are necessary aren’t living in reality.
“If you feel sorry for [wild dogs], you don’t for long,” Gilbey said. “You just need to look around where they’ve been and you’ll see a half-dead lamb with its head chewed in. They’re not hungry, mate, they just kill.”
As you might imagine, the dingo trees are far from popular with animal rights groups in Australia, just as they would be in the U.S. The trees are decried as barbaric, but farmers and hunters don't see it the same way. Harley Hedger, who hunts wild dogs for farmers, told the Sunday Times his experience with wild dogs take away any compassion he'd have for the predator.
"[The wild dogs] absolutely torture [the livestock], they eat them alive, they'll just pull them down and just eat the back legs, hamstrings out of them, they'll eat the flanks out and tear the guts out and then they'll go on to another one."
"If you feel sorry for [wild dogs], you don't for long," Gilbey said. "You just need to look around where they've been and you'll see a half-dead lamb with its head chewed in. They're not hungry, mate, they just kill."
Almost 20 years after getting his life back together, Varney was able to get his licenseâ€”and his riflesâ€”back. Since then he's enjoyed filming hunting DVDs with his son, Thomas, and teaching the next generation of Australian hunters how to call in wild dogs.
"There is really nothing I can say to [animal rights activists] that will convince them these dogs should be shotâ€”not until they have their pet or livestock torn apart by wild dogs," Varney said.
As the situation in Australia demonstrates, the threat of widespread overpopulationâ€”even as it impacts urban areasâ€”is a reality. And as the Chicago Tribune reported, there is good evidence it's already happening in the U.S.
Coyote populations continue to explode in Chicagoland, even pressing into areas around Wrigley Field. In 1989, animal control removed 20 coyotes from the Chicago area, while in recent years 300 to 400 are removed annually.
According to Stanley Gehrt, an associate professor at Ohio State University who conducted the research mentioned in the Tribune article, the coyote problem has been well documented over the last 20 yearsâ€”and it isn't going away.
"All of us are living with coyotes now. We might not see them, but they're everywhere," Gehrt told the Tribune. "We don't know when the explosive growth of coyotes is going to stop. This is a new thing."
Aside from urban attacks, coyotes and wolves have a substantial impact on livestock operations and wild game numbers in the U.S. Wolves are the most dangerous predator for livestock, according to a report by the USDA, while coyotes do more damage because they exist in larger numbers across the country.