Bruce Englefield: the devil made him do it

Bruce Englefield’s decision to include a trip to Tasmania during an Australian holiday 20 years ago followed a conversation with a friend who assured him he would have a ball there given his affinity with animals. But it was the decision taken during that Tasmanian trip which changed the course of his life. Englefield was enjoying a cuppa with his wife Maureen after visiting a wildlife park on Tasmania’s east coast when she looked out across the park, and the coastline in the distance, and said, ‘we could spend the rest of our lives here’. Six months later Tasmania – and that same wildlife park – is where the Englefields, and all their children and grandchildren, were living.

“That afternoon 20 years ago I said to her, well, it’s up for sale, so we could buy it and come to live here. She looked at me like I was crazy of course, but why not? Maureen had just retired from the health service, both our parents had died, and while we had children and grandchildren in England we’d already fallen in love with Tasmania and the people, so I called the park owner over and said we were interested in buying,” Englefield explained.

With a background that included working as a technical director for both the BBC and Thames Television, running a sheep farm, and – after achieving his Masters in animal behaviour counselling from the University of Southampton in the 1990s – an animal behaviour practice, Englefield was not without experience in working with animals, but with the benefit of hindsight he admits they did get a bit carried away.

“We couldn’t come up with a reason not to do it, but looking back there were so many things that could have gone wrong. Buying the park and doing it up took all our life savings because it was very run down, and I wasn’t happy with the way animals were being looked after. It was pretty horrendous.”

On that first visit to the park it was the behaviour of the Tasmanian devils that caught Englefield’s attention. Although he had never seen anything like these animals before, it was the ‘spinning’ behaviour they displayed that made him wonder if the devils’ small enclosures could be a reason. Since the emergence in the mid-1990s of the fatal facial tumour disease that has ravaged devil populations in the wild, but that has also resulted in a greater focus on the species’ habits and behaviours, ‘spinning’ is now widely acknowledged as a sign of stress in devils, and a maladaptation to their circumstances, but in 2001 this trait had not yet been widely studied or confirmed.

When the Englefields took over the Bicheno wildlife park they renamed East Coast Natureworld, few people outside the wildlife biologist and conservation communities were aware of DFTD and the impact it was having on devil populations. Coming from the UK, where there was regular monitoring for animal diseases like parvovirus, BSE, and foot and mouth, Englefield was concerned by the lack of preparedness on the part of authorities should Tasmania experience a wildlife disease outbreak.

“When I realised there were no breeding programs for the amazing and unique wildlife that’s endemic to the island I wrote to the premier – Jim Bacon at the time – urging him to build quarantine facilities in wildlife parks, and to establish breeding programs for devils, quolls, wombats, echidnas and possums etc, but although the then primary industries minister came to see me, unfortunately I wasn’t able to convince him of the need for such facilities.”

Despite little public awareness about DFTD during his early years at Natureworld, warning bells were already ringing among Tasmania’s scientific community, and a few months after he tried to persuade the government about the need to prepare for a potential wildlife disease threat, Englefield heard about a novel infection that was spreading among Tasmanian devil populations.

“I was at a conference and talking to Menna Jones from the University of Tasmania’s School of Biological Sciences about the possibility of disease threats to the devil when I first learned about the facial tumour disease. Although information hadn’t yet been publicly announced she said there were fears cases of suspected lymphosarcoma had already been found in devils on the east coast. Her advice was to keep my wildlife park animals separate from any injured or orphaned devils that might be brought in because at that point it was still uncertain how the disease was transmitted.”

The disease scientists initially thought was lymphsarcoma was the one we now know as devil facial tumour disease, and some weeks after his conversation with Jones, Englefield found a DFTD-infected devil on his property while trapping feral cats. Finding a diseased devil so close convinced Englefield even more about the need to create insurance populations of devils, to be housed in large, secure facilities, quite separate from other animals, and where they could breed and rear their young in a natural environment until they could be safely relocated back into the wild. Frustrated by the state government’s attitude, and the lukewarm response to suggestions this precautionary measure should be adopted, as well as a lack of enthusiasm shown by most of the Save The Tasmanian Devil Program researchers, he determined to go it alone.

During his first few years in Tasmania Englefield had instigated the development of new standards and specifications for housing devils and wombats, with input from other wildlife facilities. These changes had resulted in an enclosure design that was eight times larger than the previous minimum standard. As DFTD steadily spread across Tasmania, causing a rapid decline in devil populations, pressure to establish insurance populations gained momentum, as did renewed interest in building larger and secure enclosures.

These secured enclosures Englefield designed in conjunction with wildlife biologist Nick Mooney, were conceived as ‘islands’, or large quarantine facilities, and they became the model adopted by the Devil Island Project that Englefield established. The project’s aim was to build a number of facilities in Tasmania’s wildlife parks and sanctuaries, to house insurance populations of devils. These facilities would act as a fortress, being double-fenced, with an area in between the fences to prevent animals living outside and inside the fences from biting each other. By 2006 studies had established disease transmission was through biting, either during mating, or as the animals competed for a carcass, (The Veterinarian, March 2006).

“There was rather an attitude among some researchers who probably thought, ‘what would an old chap from the UK know anyway’, so getting funding to build a 28-acre double-fenced quarantine enclosure to house an insurance population of disease-free devils was never going to be easy. I decided the only option was to build one myself, so we set aside a 12-hectare block at Natureworld – and then I worked out the costs!”

Unsurprisingly these were significant, and in order to raise the funding Englefield knew he would need to enlist public support and sponsorship. His strategy was to link it to Australians’ well-known love of sport, so he went to the media and announced his intention of running the London Marathon in order to help save the Tasmanian devil. It was an inspired move. His TV appearance quickly resulted in a team of nine volunteers signing up to run with him, one of whom was his wife.

“The first person to contact me was Fiona Hoskin, at the time co-owner and chef at a renowned Launceston restaurant, who was committed to trying to save the devil. Maureen came with me to meet Fiona, and on the way home she turned to me and said: Well if Fiona’s going to do it, then so am I. This from a person who had never even run for a bus never mind thinking about running a marathon! And we were both in our 60s at the time!”

In April 2007, a year after the team began training, enlisting sponsorships, and running in shorter competitions like the Launceston 10 and the Burnie 10, they went to London to run in the London Marathon. They raised over $100,000, enough to build the first Devil Island facility at Natureworld, on land the Englefields had gifted to the project. Englefield took part in two more London Marathons during the Project’s 10-year life. When it closed in 2017 – a victim of its own success – Devil Island Project Inc had raised $24 million, and enabled six facilities to be established, and over four kilometres of transportable fencing to be built. And while Englefield admits he still runs, he no longer runs in marathons.

“During that period I also did the New York Marathon, several half marathons, and the Point to Pinnacles three times – about the toughest one there is, uphill all the way – but at 77 it’s time to stop! My jogging days are over other than the jogging machine at home in the garage!”

The purpose-built facilities are now used as ‘half-way houses’ for devils reintroduced to Tasmania from interstate insurance populations, for their quarantine period before being relocated.

“The project finally lead to a strong population of devils to develop on Maria Island which is now the source for healthy devil populations around the state. We set out originally to show that it was welfare-friendly to keep devils in large enclosures, rather than putting them in small enclosures in the insurance population. Devils are free-roaming animals and they should be given as much room to roam in as possible.”

Englefield’s dedication towards the survival of Tasmanian devils did not go unrecognised during those 10 years, and his advocacy for the species resulted in a number of awards. These include being named Tasmanian of the Year in 2008, and as a 2010 Australian of the Year Award finalist. He was also named the 2010 Australian Tourism Small Business Champion.

The sale of Natureworld, and winding up the Devil Island Project did not signal a slower and more relaxed pace of life however. Currently Englefield is a PhD student at the University of Sydney’s School of veterinary Science where the focus of his research is on roadkill, and wildlife carers. Millions of animals, birds and reptiles are killed or injured on Australian roads every year, but the program and the phone app Englefield designed and that was launched towards the end of 2019, that enabled people to document and photograph roadkill was so successful it has been extended indefinitely. (The Veterinarian, November 2019.)

His concerns also involve wildlife carers – most of whom are ageing – and the legislation that requires carers to eventually reintroduce hand-reared orphaned joeys back to the wild without a behaviour appraisal, or a means of tracking and monitoring their progress.

“I don’t believe we should be putting hand-reared orphans back into the wild. They’re habituated to humans, that’s unavoidable since they’ve been bottle-reared. They’re used to the sounds, smells and presence of humans and once back in the wild, without first undergoing a behaviour modification program that needs to be done by experts, means animals who are fearful and confused later that night.

“It’s estimated that 50,000 animals are injured or orphaned each year, and hand-reared for release back into the wild. Animals that are part of a study are microchipped and monitored by cameras, but reintroduced animals aren’t able to be tracked. Carers can spend two years – and their own money – raising these animals and then they’re forced to return them to the wild without ever knowing if they’ve survived. The grief that can cause is significant – like your kids disappearing and never knowing what happened to them.”

In Tasmania, where the roadkill issue is known to be a particular concern for tourists, Englefield would like to see his roadkill app being promoted by tourism operators. He said it could help to educate tourists about who to contact if they accidentally roadkill or injure an animal, as well as assist in identifying where the hotspots are that need to be better managed.

“Not enough advice is given to tourists in Tasmania about where to go or who to contact, and this citizen science project could help, making it a positive thing since tourists are going to see roadkill anyway. This app could at least help get the data and make it worthwhile.”


Anne Layton-Bennett



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.