A strangled, high-pitched howl pierces the air of the Victorian bush.
Warning: This story contains distressing images.
On the side of a gravel road, an animal, dog-like in appearance, is becoming increasingly frantic.
Its front right paw is clamped in a rubber-padded trap.
The creature stirs up leaves, jangling the trap's metal chain against nearby trees, as it tries to free itself.
Its struggle continues for up to 13 hours.
Then a man arrives.
With the pull of a trigger, the animal's suffering comes to an abrupt end.
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It is buried under a loose collection of dead pine leaves and left in the wilderness.
Killings like these occur frequently across Victoria, but they are rarely seen by the public.
They are not illegal, but part of the state's wild dog control programs – designed to prevent livestock attacks, and jointly managed by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Agriculture Victoria.
Covert recordings, obtained by 7.30, have revealed the stark reality of such measures, and posed a question with which the nation has grappled for decades: are these animals wild dogs, or dingoes?
Paul Diamond spends most mornings in the paddocks of his 1,500-acre farm near Mansfield, three hours north-east of Melbourne, inspecting his flock of Merino sheep.
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Two years ago, the inspections became a grim ritual.
"I would just get up and dread what I was going to see that day," Mr Diamond said.
Graphic photos show what he discovered as his sheep fell victim to a series of attacks.
Trail camera footage revealed the culprit.
"We saw it – a dog running through the paddock under a spotlight," Mr Diamond said.
"I've heard stories of them just going straight for the jugular, and just ripping out [the sheep's] throat and its back end, and some would eat the kidneys or the liver while the animal's still alive.
"It's just one of the most disheartening things that you have to deal with, because this is my job to protect these animals."
The third-generation farmer said he lost a total of 60 sheep over one six-week period, costing him around $16,000.
In any given year, he budgets around 8 per cent for stock losses due to predation by feral animals – but Mr Diamond said at that point he was budgeting for an additional loss of 2 to 5 per cent because of wild dog attacks.
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He became fixated on hunting the creature down to protect his stock.
Some nights he even camped out in the paddock with his swag and rifle to keep watch over his animals.
"That was the point I realised I was battling two black dogs – the black dog that was attacking my sheep and the black dog that was in my head," he said.
Eventually, it was a local hunter who found and shot the animal.
"[It was] the third best day of my life, after my two daughters being born," Mr Diamond said.
The farmer is convinced that the animal who attacked his stock was a wild dog – a feral pest to be eradicated.
However, there are others who argue that there is no difference between a wild dog and a dingo.
Dingo or wild dog?
Dingoes have roamed the country for millennia.
They are apex predators who sit at the top of the food chain, keeping feral animals in check – which, in turn, helps keep the landscape in its natural state.
After colonisation, some began breeding with domestic dogs, creating new dingo hybrids.
As they began to encroach on farms, a bounty was introduced, and over time a new term emerged.
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UNSW professor of conservation biology, Mike Letnic, said the word 'dingo' has been gradually written out of government language over the past 30 years, and replaced by the term, 'wild dog'.
"It's really a branding exercise," he said.
"We call them wild dogs when they're inconvenient, we call them dingoes when we want to put them on postcards."
While it brings some farmers relief, the act of killing wild dogs – or dingoes – is rarely seen by the broader public.
One method is through trapping.
And to Alix Livingstone, it is brutal.
"I think that wild dog management programs are, in effect, dingo eradication programs," she said.
"I don't think most of the public is aware of what is going on."
Ms Livingstone runs an initiative called Defend the Wild, a coalition of groups fighting to preserve native wildlife.
Earlier this year, she and a colleague set out to reveal the toll of the state government's trapping programs by filming a series of covert videos.
The traps were easy to find: the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) has maps on its website, and must display clear signage where traps or poison baits are in use.
Some were placed within a few kilometres of Paul Diamond's farm.
Ms Livingstone checked the traps each day.
As she stepped out of her four-wheel-drive one morning, she heard a sound that made her "stomach drop".
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"The first thing that we heard was the rattling of the chain that was stuck to this dingo's foot," she said.
"The terror in their cries was a really difficult thing to witness."
Approaching the trapped animal, she began recording.
Then, against every instinct, she kept the cameras rolling and left the creature to its fate.
"[It was] one of the hardest experiences of my life," she said.
"To know that the best way to get a result for these animals and their entire species is to leave them behind, but knowing every instinct is telling you to release them ... I think about them all the time."
Over two weeks, she saw four animals trapped and shot.
DELWP's wild dog controllers must check the traps within 24 hours.
A departmental spokesperson said the traps comply with the requirements of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Regulations 2019.
Yet Ms Livingstone said most of the animals struggled for hours before they died.
"This beautiful animal who could have lived a long life ... had just been trapped, suffered the worst kind of fate that anyone could imagine and then shot in the head and just left there to rot basically," she said.
When another two animals became trapped, she could no longer sit back and watch: she and a colleague pried them free, transporting them to a dingo sanctuary.
Paul Diamond, who said he doesn't trap wild dogs himself, was conflicted after viewing the trapping footage.
"I've got pet dogs that I thought of when I saw that video," he said.
"But then I've also got, let's call them pet sheep, that I care for and I've seen what that thing can do to [to them]."
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By the same token, Ms Livingstone was "deeply distressed" by photos of maimed sheep, but said: "I don't think that causing more suffering to another species is the answer, particularly not a threatened native species."
Search for a solution
There is more than 22 million livestock on Victorian farms.
In the last year, 1,249 were reported killed by wild dogs.
Around the same period, 683 wild dogs – or dingoes – were killed through trapping and incidental shooting.
While 693 were killed by recreational hunters through government-run bounty collection schemes, whereby hunters receive $120 per wild dog pelt.
It's unknown how many died from poison baiting.
Ms Livingstone argued that wild dog control efforts are disproportionate to the number of sheep lost due to wild dog predation.
She said the vast majority of sheep deaths are caused by farm management practices, such as a lack of access to shelter, breeding for multiple births or mismothering – whereby a ewe fails to take care of its young.
"And yet dingoes, many of whom have never, nor will ever, set foot on a farm are given a death sentence," she said.
Paul Diamond told 7.30 that farmers try to mitigate all factors that impact livestock losses.
"A fox will add a per cent, a wild dog will either add another per cent, mismothering another per cent," he said.
"We want lambs to hit the ground and survive. That is our main goal … all the variables in between that I have control over I'll take action on."
Ms Livingstone wants the Victorian government to abolish its trapping programs, in favour of funding non-lethal methods to protect livestock, such as exclusion fencing or guardian animals.
A spokesperson for the DELWP said its wild dog control program already uses a range of non-lethal measures.
He said the DELWP trapping program operates within a 3-kilometre buffer zone where public land borders private property, and only where wild dog attacks on livestock are known to have occurred.
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Paul Diamond said he has tried training alpacas to guard his sheep, to limited effect.
"[You have] one bodyguard or several bodyguards with a president – you know, JFK still got shot, didn't he?" he said.
As it stands, trapping is legal in every mainland state and territory.
In Victoria, the government walks a fine line.
Pure dingoes are a protected and threatened species, but it is legal to kill them on, or near, private land.
Wild dogs, on the other hand, are actively killed through shooting and poison baiting programs – at a cost of $6 million over four years.
Local farmers told 7.30 they viewed wild dogs as a feral pest – one that preys not only on livestock, but on native animals like koalas and wallabies.
When is a dingo a dingo?
The extent of hybridisation among dingoes has long been contested.
Last year, Professor Mike Letnic co-authored a national study that tested the DNA of 5,000 wild canines of various colour and appearance.
It found just 0.5 per cent were feral dogs.
Ninety-nine per cent were genetically more than half dingo, while more than 60 per cent were pure dingoes.
"They look like dingoes, they act like dingoes and it's not true that we have these feral dogs running all around the country," Professor Letnic said.
So when is a dingo a dingo?
"I don't know if there is a line," he said.
"But by and large, most of the animals out there are predominantly dingoes."
However, while Professor Letnic thinks dingoes should be protected in some areas, he does not believe lethal control should be scrapped entirely.
"I wear wool, I eat lamb – it's only possible to have sheep where there's very few dingoes," he said.
"But fundamentally, we need to start calling them dingoes, and calling a spade a spade."
For Paul Diamond, it makes little difference.
"If it was a purebred dingo, would I have still done the same thing? Well, of course. I've got to protect my livestock," he said.
A DELWP spokesperson said it is testing the DNA of the animals killed through its trapping programs to determine the level of hybridisation.
The results are yet to be released.
He said the department was supporting peer-reviewed research to determine the genetic status of wild canids in Victoria, which will be used to better inform its policy and planning.
The dingo sanctuary that housed the freed animals declined 7.30's request for a DNA sample to run genetic tests.
Connection thousands of years old
In the long-running debate over dingo management, some voices have been drowned out.
Yaraan Couzens-Bundle is a proud Gunditjmara, Djab Wurrung, Yuin and Bidjara woman.
She said First Nations groups across the country have an enduring connection to the dingo – or burnung, as it is known in Djab Wurrung language – which stretches back thousands of years.
"The dingo's place of belonging was right beside us and all around us," she said.
"They were free to come and go as they pleased, but they were so clever that they lived with us and they supported us and we supported them."
But dingoes no longer roam her country, in Victoria's west – it's one of several regions across Australia where they are thought to have become extinct.
There is no data showing how many dingoes remain in the wild.
"They couldn't get away with shooting us anymore, but they're getting away with shooting our countrymen, our countrywomen: the burnung," Ms Couzens-Bundle said.
In 2020, three traditional owner groups called on the Victorian government to explore reintroducing dingoes in Gariwerd, or the Grampians National Park.
The proposal was swiftly abandoned after intense backlash from the local farming community.
"We love the farmers and the work that they do to feed Australia, but we're not compromising on the values of our love for country and what is right anymore," Ms Couzens-Bundle said.
"It's actually ruining what Australia is.
"We belong to that country, our blood belongs to that country, and so does the burnung."
A spokesperson said DELWP was working with traditional owners, ecologists and farmers to find ways to conserve dingoes in Victoria.
The predicament confronting the Victorian government cuts to the core of Australia's national identity: how to balance the needs of the farming community, the country's First Peoples and an iconic native species.
For now, the path forward seems to rely on finding common ground.
The Victorian ministers for agriculture and the DELWP were unable to comment due to the state government being in caretaker mode in the lead-up to next week's election.
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