Glen Chilton, an internationally known bird biologist, is also a collector of eccentrics, both people and other animals.
The Last Place You'd Look for a Wallaby is Dr Chilton's third book, following The Curse of the Labrador Duck and The Return of the Ferret Zombies. Clearly, he has a gift for the catchy book title. Based in Townsville, Chilton is a Canadian, and the Wallaby book has an alternative Canadian title: The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons.
Confusing? Not really. Wallaby is sub-titled "My Obsessive Quest to Seek Out Alien Species" and that's what it's all about, starting with the wallabies of Scotland. Once upon a time, the story goes, a wealthy Scottish land-owner created a wildlife park in the Highlands, on an island in Loch Lomond called Inchconnachan. The Tasmanian Red-necked Wallabies are still there, living in the wild, not all of them on the island. "Most people," notes Dr Chilton in characteristic style, "think of wallabies as small kangaroos, although the wallabies themselves claim that kangaroos are oversized wallabies."
The alternative title to the book, Killer Rhododendrons, is one of the chapter headings. "The great ancient oak forests of Ireland, Scotland and Wales are under attack," says Chilton. There's a rather grim familiarity to the story. It could be about horehound, St John's Wort, or Patterson's Curse. The common rhododendron was largely unknown in Ireland until the mid-1900s.Now it grows "in the form of a densely matted bush, but reaching three times my height no light reached the ground, and no plants of any sort grew the next generation of oaks was nowhere in sight."
And the oysters. Chilton and his wife Lisa visit what was once a thriving North Sea oyster fishery in the Netherlands. The water in the Netherlands is contaminated with an incredible assortment of introduced aquatic species, including "clawed frogs from Africa, water ferns from Brazil, Pacific crabs from Japan, round gobies from Russia, slipper limpets from the US, pond turtles from Italy, Wels catfish from Hungary, and soft-shelled clams from Canada."
Among the worst of the introduced pests is the Pacific Oyster. Not everyone hates the Pacific Oyster, and it has been deliberately introduced in some parts of the world where the original oyster beds were fished out or diseased. But in Europe and America and New Zealand, local oyster and mussels are being out-competed, and Crassostrea gigas is regarded as a pest. Oddly, Dr Chilton says that he is a vegetarian, so he wouldn't eat one anyway, though Lisa volunteers to try. He says it isn't part of her job description.
And the Eucalypts. The Emperor Menelik, who died in 1913, tried to modernise what was then Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. Evelyn Waugh's very funny novel Scoop is an accurate if unkind description of the process. One of the Emperor's innovations was the introduction of Australian gum trees, especially the Tasmanian Blue Gum. And now the country is full of them. "These Eucalypts seemed pretty happy with life," Chilton says, "growing straight and strong, and with a sense of smug superiority ... having left behind their natural predators, parasites and diseases."
The cover blurb says this book is "wickedly funny." It is, too, even though it is 14 chapters about introduced species which are anything but funny. It's a great read, full of surprises, with a very serious undertone.
The Last Place You'd Look For a Wallaby, by Glen Chilton, UQP (2013), is available in Cooma from Monaro Books and Music.