Brooklyn’s Outback

I’ll be the first to admit that “Urban Gardner” isn’t the place to go for breaking news. But I’ve got some today, and I’d like to think that the reason my sources decided to share it with me isn’t because they couldn’t find anybody better, but because they knew I’d treat the subject with the respect and nuance it deserves.

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Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street JournalThe newly acquired dingoes

So here goes: the Prospect Park Zoo debuts its new dingoes, wild Australian dogs, today. Furthermore, and I’ll confess I’m transcribing the Wildlife Conservation Society’s press release here (that’s the organization that runs Prospect Park and the city’s three other zoos, as well as the New York Aquarium): “In the spirit of the day, Brownies and Daisies from the Greater New York Girl Scouts will be on hand to sing Australia’s famous Kookaburra Song before leading the way through the new exhibit.”

I got a guided tour, alas without musical accompaniment, through the dingoes’ new home Tuesday afternoon. Their names are Dacu and Cobar. According to Denise McClean, the zoo’s director, Dacu is Aborigine for “sand.” Cobar means “burnt earth.” There are four dingoes in all, but you’d never see all four at the same time. Dacu and Cobar are a couple (Dacu the female, and Cobar the male). They do their shift, then retire to a newly constructed shed within their enclosure, replaced every second day by the other dingo pair, who I didn’t get to see and whose names I neglected to ask.

“The male found a cricket,” Ms. McClean marveled as the dingoes rooted among their pen’s tall grasses. “We’ve scattered crickets. It promotes the foraging instinct.”

I’m sure crickets are fun for dingoes, but even more fun would be a big fat goose. Talk about promoting their instincts, there was a handsome Cape Barren Goose keeping an eagle eye on the carnivorous dingoes from its space directly across the way—even though the dingoes are fenced in to prevent them from going rogue to supplement their diet.

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Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

A yellow-footed rock wallaby

I’m all for enlightened zoo management—that’s the school of thought that you should, as much as possible, create a facsimile of their environment in the wild, keep them mentally stimulated, and not house animals—such as lions and tigers—if such conditions can’t be met; no matter how much it might disappoint local school kids who came hoping to see man-eaters.

But it still seemed to me cruel and unusual punishment to locate the dingoes so close, yet so far, from what “Down Under” might be considered their normal menu.

Indeed, at that very moment there was a yellow-footed rock wallaby apprehensively watching the dingoes from atop an outcropping in the enclosure it shares with the geese along the zoo’s Australian Walkabout. Ms. McClean and Jeffrey Sailer, the director of city zoos, who also joined us, assured me that the wild dogs’ arrival had created no additional stress for their neighbors, even though Ms. McClean conceded that the wallabies have been spending more time recently on their rock observing the dingoes.

“They realize where each other’s territory is,” she explained. “They learn to ignore each other right away. As you can notice [the dingoes] spend more time searching for crickets. The geese went right up to the viewing window and the dingoes absolutely ignored them.”

And how long did Ms. McClean say she’s been in the zoo business? Everyone knows that’s the oldest trick in the book. You lull your prey into a false sense of security, and then, when they least expect it you lunge. Those crafty dingoes had pulled the wool over Mr. Sailer’s eyes, too. “They’re opportunists and omnivores,” he explained, “and are going to eat the easiest thing available—easier than an angry goose.”

Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street JournalEmus

Guess what? I’m an omnivore, too. I love green salads but every once in a while my tummy growls for a burger or a juicy porterhouse.

Obviously, crickets aren’t the entirety of the dingoes’ diet. “They eat a carnivore biscuit,” Mr. Sailer stated. “It’s like dog chow.”

“And a rat once a week,” Ms. McClean confided.

I’ll admit that the wild dogs seemed content. And they were beautiful animals—they looked like a cross between dogs and foxes, their ears permanently erect. “They’re an underappreciated species,” Mr. Sailer said. “They’ve had the misfortune of waxing and waning in the conservation movement in terms of importance.”

Dingoes have been listed as endangered, he added, both because they’ve been treated and hunted as pests—much the way gray wolves have in the Western U.S.—and also because they’ve bred with domestic dogs in Australia, their genes “swamped.”

“These are as pure a dingo as exists today,” he said. They arrived from Australia’s Dingo Discovery Center in Victoria in November 2011 when they were about 6 months old. “This particular pair is a variant that occurs in more alpine regions of Australia.”

After we’d gotten all we could out of the dingoes—as glorious as they were they don’t hold quite the amusement value of a nervy chimp or a mountain gorilla—we wended our way through the rest of the zoo’s Discovery Trail. This included befriending “Christie,” a gray kangaroo, a couple of 6-foot-tall emus, red pandas, porcupines, some incredibly cute, petite tufted deer from China, and two children who had gotten into the prairie dog exhibit.

“Excuse me, hello!” Ms. McClean shouted.

The zoo is well staffed with security and volunteers. But it was amazingly, and actually movingly, crowded Tuesday afternoon, the result, apparently of a confluence of circumstances—Passover, Easter, spring break and great weather. Indeed, it seemed almost a song of the city, legions of Hasidic Jews pushing baby strollers and mingling in the Animal Lifestyles house with Muslim women in head scarves, everybody interested in but one thing—jockeying for a front row view of the animals: a Hamadryas baboon sitting by a waterfall, a Mongolian Pallas’s cat that, perched on a rock outcropping, and with its feline face and hunched, almost simian attitude, looked like some concoction out of Lewis Carroll.

I know it’s politically incorrect, but there was something to be said for the zoos of old—one-stop shopping for elephants, giraffe and every big cat imaginable. In fact, I can still remember the visceral stench, equal parts animal odor and childhood terror, upon entering the Central Park Zoo’s long-gone lion house where lions, tigers, leopards and black panthers paced back and forth, almost daring you to stick your hands through the bars.

Ms. McClean said that modern zoo habitats such as the “Now you see them; now you don’t” dingo enclosure with its obscuring bushes and high grass promotes “the act of discovery—where people have to put a teeny bit of effort.”

I suppose it’s better this way. Certainly the children visiting Tuesday afternoon—in an age where your most likely contact with a large predator comes on a videogame—seemed no less enchanted than the zoo-goers of old.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com