Winston Churchill’s ‘beautifully idiotic’ platypus quest – and more strange stories about Australian animals abroad

lIn early 1943, the Second World War raged in several theaters. Hitler’s army had just suffered a historic defeat at Stalingrad, but U-boats still dove in the Atlantic and British resources were strained to the limit. So it must have come as a surprise to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin when a telegram arrived from… Winston Churchill with a request to immediately send six platypuses to Britain, in a plan that conservationist Gerald Durrell described as “beautifully idiotic”.

Historians have tried to place this episode in a broader context of imperialism and international geopolitics, but it seems Churchill just really wanted a platypus. He had collected exotic animals all his life, including black swans, a white kangaroo, a parakeet named Toby who attended ministerial meetings, and a lion named Rota, which he sensibly kept at the London Zoo.

There was one man for the job. In March 1943, government officials knocked on the door of Australian biologist David Fleay, who received “the shock of his life”. Fleay convinced those in power to get six platypuses… England, and taking care of them once they got there was at no point unrealistic, let alone in the middle of a war. Instead, they agreed to carry one live monotreme—a healthy boy Fleay caught and named Winston. When Australian Secretary of State Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt met Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt in Washington in May, he telephoned the Commonwealth’s Director-General of Health: ‘Churchill in Washington was deeply concerned that the platypus would leave immediately. What is the current situation?”

Four months later, Winston boarded the heavily armed MV Port Phillip, where he was housed below deck in a wooden platypus built by Fleay, who supplied the ship with “enough earthworms, crayfish, mealworms and fresh water to have Winston on a full lap.” refueled. the world tour”. The ship slipped out of Melbourne in September, crossed the Pacific and sailed through the Panama Canal with Winston “lively and ready for his food”. A press release was issued announcing Winston’s arrival in the UK and requesting that worms be sent from all over Britain, packed in jars with “moldy or damp tea leaves”, to feed the Prime Minister’s new pet.

The Platypus, from The Mammals of Australia by Helena Forde and Harriet Scott, 1869
The Platypus, from The Mammals of Australia by Helena Forde and Harriet Scott, 1869. Photo: Public domain

Unfortunately, Winston didn’t make it. Four days from Liverpool, the ship’s sonar detected a German submarine, and the captain responded by detonating depth charges. The boat and its crew survived, but there was one new Australian casualty of war: little Winston. “Tragically, the severe concussion killed the platypus then and there,” Fleay wrote. “After all, a small animal equipped with a nerve-racking, super-sensitive beak, capable of detecting even the delicate movements of a mosquito creeper on stream bottoms in the dark of night, cannot hope to deal with man-made magnitudes such as violent explosions.”


tThe colonization of Australia coincided with an intense British fascination with exotic animals. At the end of the 18th century, a wealthy family could buy a parrot, monkey, flamingo or zebra, or even a docile rhinoceros for the right price. Traveling menageries were a popular form of public entertainment – at the height of the trend, more than 500 animals circulated in England in purpose-built wagons and were exhibited at local fairs.

Two black swans arrived in England on the Buffalo in 1800 and were presented to the Queen, but sadly one died shortly afterwards, and the other “took advantage of the freedom they gave him…and was shot by a nobleman’s gamekeeper.” as it was flying over the Thames”. A live wombat was brought to England in 1805 by Matthew Flinders’ naturalist Robert Brown, who gave it to anatomist Everard Home. Another arrived on the Investigator in 1810. A pickled wombat and platypus had arrived in London in 1799, delivered in a cask of brandy, which promptly burst over the head of a woman wearing it over her head after it was unloaded.

The presence of kangaroos, in particular, was seen during the Napoleonic Wars as further evidence of British superiority over the kangarooless French. In 1802, during a brief period of peace, Joseph Banks presented two kangaroos to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and two years later Nicolas Baudin’s expedition returned after nearly four years exploring the southern coast of Australia (or “Terre Napoleon ”, as it appears on Baudin’s maps) containing 33 large trunks full of scientific specimens and 72 highly seasick living animals, including kangaroos, dingoes, long-necked turtles, wombats, black swans and a lyrebird.

A boxing kangaroo depicted in The Naturalist's Cabinet: Containing Interesting Sketches of Animal History by M. Thomas Smith, published in London in 1806
A boxing kangaroo depicted in The Naturalist’s Cabinet: Containing Interesting Sketches of Animal History, by M Thomas Smith, published in London in 1806. Photo: Public domain

Most of the Australian animals – plus others collected along the way, including lions, ostriches, porcupines, monkeys, a hyena and a wildebeest – ended up in Empress Josephine’s menagerie at Malmaison. Her collection also included Kangaroo and King Islands dwarf emus, a species that was in danger of extinction soon after; the last surviving Australian dwarf emu died in France in 1822.

In 1803 a kangaroo appeared in the royal menagerie in Vienna. By 1830, Penny Olson writes, “kangaroos (and wallabies) could be seen in public and private menageries, museums, in plays and circuses from England to Russia”. Wombats were shipped to France, dingoes to London and black swans to Copenhagen, Cologne, Java, Kolkata and Paris. However, in the first half of the 1800s, menageries were increasingly considered old-fashioned, and the more enlightened embraced a modern feature of most western cities: the zoo.

The Australian acclimation movement took full advantage of the trend. The Acclimatization Society of Victoria, whose main business was to import European animals for release into the Australian bush, sent Australian fish, ducks, dingoes and magpies to the London Zoological Society for research; in 1865 alone, the association sent animals—mainly kangaroos, emus, and black swans—to Saint Petersburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Cologne, Copenhagen, Kolkata, Mauritius, Sicily, Yangon, and Java. Lords of the Admiralty in London made Her Majesty’s ships available for the carriage of specimens “provided there is no charge in the department”.

'Acclimatisation': depiction of animals by artist Edgar Ray in Royal Park, Melbourne, from the Illustrated Australian Mail, 1862.
‘Acclimatisation’: depiction of animals by artist Edgar Ray in Royal Park, Melbourne, from the Illustrated Australian Mail, 1862. Photo: Victoria State Library

There are limited reports of how animals fared on international travel, but it clearly wasn’t good. Many died along the way, and those who made it alive had to endure cramped conditions and storms that could last for days – what must have been a new experience for an animal that spent its life traveling through open plains, burrowing underground or in treetops.

The ASV’s first annual report highlighted the challenges of wildlife transportation:

The usual course of action for private individuals – and even initially for associations – who have animals to send is to bring them to the ship at the last minute and place them unknowingly in the care of the steward, cook or the butcher to post something about his character or character, or the amount of other duties he must perform. Everything is fine as long as the weather is nice. But a storm rises, everyone is called to their own posts, meanwhile the dens and cages are washed by every sea, the animals tumble over each other and are at their wits’ end, and when the storm is over, it turns out that half of the they are maimed or dead.

The ASV’s solution was to provide “proper care and care for the animals on board” and to transport animals in large quantities to increase the chances of some reaching their destination alive. The ASV noted in 1864 that echidnas required great care during long journeys because they had to be fed “with milky foods and eggs.” Salmon and trout eggs were shipped in boxes on beds of charcoal, green moss and broken ice. Songbirds, apparently more expendable, were sent unaccompanied in wire cages. Seals were said to be one of the most difficult animals to transport by sea, as they had to be kept in water tanks so that they could regularly surface to breathe.

It wasn’t easier to get the other way, of course. In 1886, Dudley Le Souef bought zebras, reindeer and wild Berber sheep in Paris for the Melbourne Zoo, but the real prize was an American bison, which died at sea despite the efforts of Le Souef and the ship’s doctor. Two years earlier, Dudley spent a month in Singapore with a shopping list of animals, including a rhinoceros and a tapir (a large mammal native to South America). He bought two tapirs and sent them to Melbourne while he waited for a rhinoceros to come up for sale. A month later, he finally got his hands on a rhinoceros, making it as far as Sydney before falling ill and dying before reaching Melbourne. When Le Souef returned home, he found that one of the tapirs had also died in transit and that the other had died shortly after arrival. The trip had taken three months and cost £400, but it wasn’t a total bust – it did bring home a number of other interesting animals, including a black panther, a leopard, a tiger and some orangutans, which are part of the zoo’s collection. were added.

Two years later, Le Souef successfully brought back a tapir from Europe. A rhinoceros proved more challenging, but one was eventually purchased in Kolkata. It was loaded onto the SS Bancoora along with a young elephant, monkeys and parrots. On July 13, 1891, the steamship ran aground in a storm near Barwon Heads. The animals were rescued and put on a train to Melbourne, but the rhinoceros died weeks later (during the time it was on display, the number of visitors at the zoo doubled). The treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean did not spare traveling animals. The ship carrying Ranee, Melbourne Zoo’s first elephant, was struck by a severe storm on its way from India in 1883. She reportedly wrapped her trunk around an iron pole and held on.

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