Painter Jane Canfield and her partner, Creese Syred, first realised something was wrong when they were woken at their campsite to the sound of their 10-month-old wheaten border collie, Doble, screaming.
“My first thought was he’s got an electric shock from the batteries in the back of my car,” Syred, a tradesman, says.
The couple from Lidsdale in the New South Wales central tablelands were camping just north of Wilcannia in the state’s far west during July, four days into a painting trip they hoped would include Uluru.
Earlier that evening, they had parked 1.4 kilometres down a dirt track off the main road. There were no fences or signs in the vicinity. The dogs ran around while they set up camp but didn’t range more than 20 metres from the vehicle. When they went to bed, all seemed well.
A few hours later, by the light of a head torch, they watched in horror as Doble screamed, convulsed and frothed at the mouth.
“He was under the truck, he was whacking his head on the trailer, he was somersaulting around,” Syred says. “I stood back and for the next 20 minutes had to watch him die.”
Later, Syred and Canfield learned that Doble’s convulsions were typical of 1080 poisoning, and believe he found a bait at their campsite.
1080, or sodium fluoroacetate, is a lethal pesticide used to kill feral animals – wild dogs, foxes, pigs and rabbits – that impact agricultural and forestry activities or threaten native biodiversity.
But some native species are also targeted. In the government-endorsed Wild Dog Action Plan, dingoes are included in the definition of “wild-living dogs” controlled by 1080 baiting; and in Tasmania it is used to cull wallabies and possums. There is no antidote.
Australia is one of only a few countries to still use the pesticide, which has been phased out elsewhere in the world due to the risks it poses to non-target animals. It is regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, and further governed by state and territory authorities, who are responsible for ensuring its safe use.
The NSW Farmers Association considers 1080 a critical tool in the management of pest species, estimating that wild dog attacks on livestock cost the national economy more than $89m a year.
“Beyond the financial cost is the emotional and mental distress farmers face when they discover a wild dog attack upon their animals,” a spokesperson for the association said.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (NSW EPA) says landholders are subject to strict obligations when using 1080 baits: training, alerting neighbours and removing unused baits. A spokesperson for the NSW EPA said: “All areas where 1080 baits are applied must be signposted at all authorised entry points to warn people that baits have been applied.”
According to Canfield and Syred, there were no signs at or near their campsite. The NSW EPA says there are cases of landholders not following regulations when setting baits or acquiring the poison unlawfully. There is also anecdotal evidence of baits being picked up by birds and foxes and moved out of baiting areas.
One of the arguments for the continued use of 1080 is that Australian native animals can tolerate the poison due to the presence of fluoroacetate in some native plant species.
However, the Coalition of Australians Against 1080 Poison says regional variations in the plants containing fluoroacetate result in different sensitivities.
“Some species in southern Australia are three times more sensitive to 1080 than the same species in Western Australia,” the coalition said in a statement. “Marsupial herbivores in eastern Australia are over 100 times more sensitive.”
Proponents of 1080, such as the Department of Primary Industries, argue poisoned animals only experience “mild to moderate suffering”, but the RSPCA has long campaigned for alternatives to the poison, which it believes is not humane.
The Invasive Species Council’s chief executive, Andrew Cox, believes 1080 is a vital part of the land manager’s toolkit for saving Australian native species.
“In some situations alternatives don’t exist and in many cases 1080 offers the most effective way to control feral animals,” he says.
“The broadscale withdrawal of 1080 would cause immense harm to Australian wildlife, including death, suffering and local extinctions.
“We fully support the development of replacement baits that minimise animal suffering.”
The NSW EPA says it receives, on average, 10 reports a year of domestic dogs poisoned by 1080. The Coalition of Australians Against 1080 Poison suspects many cases go unreported and urge people whose pets have been affected to contact them for support and advice.
Despite homing another wheaten border collie since Doble’s death, Syred and Canfield are still shaken by the experience. Before their trip was cut short, they crossed paths with many other travelling dog owners. They fear that most people are unaware of the dangers of 1080 and would like to see an app developed to warn visitors if the poison has been used in a particular area.
“We used to love walking our dogs in the local state forest,” Canfield says. “We don’t do it now.” Her advice to dog owners in regional areas is: “If your dog’s out of the vehicle, put a muzzle on it”.
“We feel like we let Doble down because we should’ve known. If you see a sign, sure, then you know. Now we’ve learnt that doesn’t even matter.”
Sarah Michell is a freelance writer based in Lithgow