By Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow

In the 1980s I ran a guiding course. One day a trainee operator and I came across a large goanna, lying freshly dead in the burnished iron pisolate gravel on the side of the road.  “Shall we see whether it’s a boy or a girl?” I asked this rather sweet, gentle man.  He agreed.  As we both bent over the corpse I pressed gently behind the goanna’s vent, and behold, two large toadstool-like appendages, the hemipenes, sprang into view.  My operator jumped back, startled.  He never said a word all the way home, and  I thought I’d upset him.  But his wife later assured me that he was ‘so impressed, he was struck dumb’!

Around that time the tourism industry asked me to address operators regarding the course.  On the whiteboard, I drew a shape that somewhat resembled a pair of lumpy-headed toadstools.  Not one of the operators present could identify my sketch, and so I told them.  “That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you get when you sex a dead goanna”.

I knew that at least one in the audience wasn’t past putting the hard word on more attractive clients.  But when it actually came to talking about sex in the context of wildlife, that was a different kettle of fish!  Few were interested – unlike the operator mentioned previously most thought the topic irrelevant if not downright bestial.  After all, tourism was a glamour industry, all about spotless sun-drenched beaches, picture-postcard waterfalls and air-conditioned coaches, and polite, professional, spotlessly-attired staff. That was the image the NT wished to promote.  And of course, that’s what many visitors wanted.  But not all.

Some visitors were very interested.  There were two glamorous Americans whose main goal was to see the reproductive organs of a female marsupial.  We found a freshly dead female Antilopine Wallaroo near the turnoff to Fogg Dam and opened her up.  Marsupial reproductive organs are fascinating, having a bipartite uterus and the equivalent of three vaginae.  The women were ecstatic.  As the air-conditioned coaches drove past on the way Kakadu National Park, their passengers waved at us.  We waved bloody arms in return.

Then there were the couple of women who sat in the dirt with me dissecting Black Whip Snakes so we could examine their reproductive organs.

Were these people perverts?  Well, one of the first two was the Curator of Primates at the San Francisco Zoo and her sister, a biology teacher.   The fellow snake-sexer was a church minister, who, along with her companion, was also a wildlife carer.  To the adults I guide, the topic of sex, if it arises, is part of life, a small part, but present and important at the same time.

And this is why sex is mentioned in my fauna books.  I sometimes do this with humour.  For example, in Fauna of Kakadu and the Top End (1993), I compared a goanna’s hemipenes, with its little bumps and frills to the tickler condoms one could buy at a sex shop.  I also included a chapter on sex in Birds of Australia’s Top End, published in 2000 and 2005.

When the Northern Territory tourism industry discovered I was showing visitors, not just dead animals, but their private parts, many were horrified.

The fauna book was reviewed in the Northern Territory News as a ‘sex manual’.  More enlightened was a review of BOATE by the respected American Birdwatcher’s Digest. Praising the book the author added that it contained ‘the most detailed description of bird sex I have ever seen in a book of popular ornithology”.

Some in Top End tourism did like the books; tour guides considered both, along with a plant book by Brock, as their ‘bibles’.  But I have the distinct impression that many still consider wildlife as sexless, as well as harmless.  The Bambi syndrome still reigns!