Winston Churchill’s quest for the ‘beautifully silly’ platypus – and weirder stories of Australian animals abroad | Wildlife

In early 1943, the Second World War raged in several theatres. Hitler’s army had just suffered a historic defeat at Stalingrad, but submarines were still prowling the Atlantic and Britain’s resources were depleted. So it must have come as a surprise to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin when a telegram arrived from Winston Churchill asking for six platypus to be sent to Britain immediately, in a plan that conservationist Gerald Durrell described as ” beautifully silly”.

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

There was a 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 the powers that be that bringing six platypus to England, and caring for them once they got there, was unrealistic at any time, let alone in the midst of a war. Instead, they agreed to transport a living monotreme – a healthy boy whom Fleay captured and named Winston. When Australian Foreign Minister Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt met Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt in Washington in May, he telegraphed the Commonwealth Health Director General: ‘Churchill in Washington very anxious that the platypus leaves immediately. What is the current situation ? »

Four months later, Winston boarded the heavily armed MV Port Phillip, where he was housed below decks in a wooden platypus built by Fleay, who supplied the ship with “enough worms, crawfish, mealworms and fresh water to fill Winston for a full lap”. around the world “. The ship escaped from Melbourne in September, sailed across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal with Winston “alive and ready for his food”. A press release has been drawn up announcing Winston’s arrival in the UK and asking for worms to be sent from all over Britain, packed in jars with “mold or damp tea leaves”, to feed the Prime Minister’s new pet.

The duck-billed platypus, from The Mammals of Australia by Helena Forde and Harriet Scott, 1869. Photograph: public domain

Unfortunately, Winston did not survive. Four days out of Liverpool, the ship’s sonar detected a German U-boat and the captain responded by detonating depth charges. The boat and its crew survived, but there was a new Australian war casualty: little Winston. “Tragically, the heavy concussion killed the platypus on the spot,” Fleay wrote. “After all, a small animal with a nervous and ultra-sensitive beak, able to detect even the delicate movements of a mosquito twirling at the bottom of a stream in the dark of night, cannot hope to face man-made enormities such as violent explosions.


Jhe colonization of Australia coincided with an intense British fascination with exotic animals. At the end of the 18th century, a wealthy family could acquire a parrot, a monkey, a flamingo or a zebra, even a docile rhinoceros at the right price. Traveling menageries were a popular form of public entertainment – ​​at the height of the trend, over 500 animals traveled around England in purpose-built wagons and were displayed at local fairs.

Two black swans arrived in England on the Buffalo in 1800 and were presented to the Queen, but sadly one died soon after, and the other ‘enjoyed the freedom they gave him …and was shot by a nobleman’s gamekeeper as it was. fly across the Thames”. A living wombat was taken 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 barrel of brandy, which quickly burst on the head of a woman who was carrying it on her head after he had been unloaded.

The presence of kangaroos in particular was seen as further evidence of British superiority over the kangaroo-less French during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1802, during a brief period of peace, Joseph Banks presented two kangaroos to the Menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and two years later Nicolas Baudin’s expedition returned after nearly four years of exploring the south coast of ‘Australia (or “Terre Napoleon”, as it appears on Baudin’s maps) with 33 large crates full of scientific specimens and 72 very sick live animals including kangaroos, dingoes, long-necked turtles, wombats, black swans and a lyre bird.

A boxer kangaroo illustrated in The Naturalist's Cabinet: Containing Interesting Sketches of Animal History by Mr. Thomas Smith, published in London in 1806
A boxer kangaroo illustrated in The Naturalist’s Cabinet: Containing Interesting Sketches of Animal History, by Mr Thomas Smith, published in London in 1806. Photograph: public domain

Most of the Australian animals – along with others picked up along the way, including lions, ostriches, porcupines, monkeys, a hyena and a wildebeest – ended up in Empress Josephine’s menagerie in Bad house. His collection also included dwarf emus from Kangaroo and King Islands, a species that was driven to extinction shortly thereafter; the last surviving Australian dwarf emu died in France in 1822.

In 1803, a kangaroo appeared in the royal menagerie in Vienna. By 1830, writes Penny Olson, “kangaroos (and wallabies) figured in public and private menageries, museums, plays, and circuses from England to Russia.” Wombats were shipped to France, dingoes to London and black swans to Copenhagen, Cologne, Java, Calcutta and Paris. By the first half of the 19th century, however, menageries were increasingly seen as old-fashioned, and the more enlightened adopted a modern feature of most Western cities: the zoo.

The Australian acclimatization movement took full advantage of the trend. The Acclimatization Society of Victoria, whose main business was importing 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 society sent animals – mainly kangaroos, emus and black swans – to Saint Petersburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Cologne, Copenhagen, Calcutta, Mauritius, Sicily, Yangon and Java. The Lords of the Admiralty in London made Her Majesty’s ships available for the transport of specimens “on condition that no expense be imposed on the department”.

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

There are few accounts of how the animals behaved on international trips, but it was clearly not good. Many died along the way and those who brought it to life had to endure cramped conditions and storms that could last for days – which must have been a novel experience for an animal that had spent its life traversing open plains. , to dig under the ground or to nest in the treetops.

The first annual report of the ASV raised the challenges of transporting wild animals:

The usual approach among individuals – and even in the first place among companies – who have animals to send is to lower them on the ship at the last moment and entrust them to the steward, the cook or the butcher without knowing it. anything about his disposition or character, or the amount of other duties he may have to perform. Everything is fine as long as the weather is nice. But a storm rises, every man is called to his proper post in the meantime, the dens and cages are washed by all the seas, the animals tumble and are at their wits’ end, and when the gale has passed , it is found that half of them are mutilated or dead.

The ASV’s solution was to provide “proper care and assistance to animals on board” and to ship animals in huge quantities to improve the chances of some arriving alive at their destination. The ASV noted in 1864 that echidnas required great care on long journeys as they had to be fed “milk food and eggs”. Salmon and trout eggs were shipped in boxes on beds of charcoal, green moss and crushed ice. The seemingly more consumable songbirds were sent to wire cages without an attendant. Seals would be one of the most difficult animals to transport by sea as they had to be kept in water tanks that allowed them to regularly come to the surface to breathe.

Of course, it wasn’t easier to come the other way. In 1886, Dudley Le Souef purchased wild zebras, reindeer and Barbary sheep in Paris for the Melbourne Zoo, but the real prize was an American bison, which died at sea despite the best efforts of Le Souef and the ship’s doctor. vessel. 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 to wait for a rhino to come up for sale. A month later he finally got his hands on a rhinoceros, which reached Sydney before falling ill and dying before reaching Melbourne. When Le Souef arrived home, he discovered that one of the tapirs had also died in transit, and the other had died shortly after arrival. The trip had taken three months and cost £400, but it wasn’t a total failure – it brought home other interesting animals including a black panther, leopard, tiger and orangutans, which were added to the zoo’s collection.

Two years later, Le Souef brings back with him a tapir from Europe. A rhinoceros proved more difficult, but one was eventually purchased from Kolkata. He was loaded onto the SS Bancoora with a young elephant, monkeys and parrots. On July 13, 1891, the steamer ran aground in a gale near Barwon Heads. The animals were rescued and put on a train to Melbourne, but the rhino died weeks later (during the time it was on display, attendance at the zoo doubled). The treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean have not spared traveling animals. The ship carrying Ranee, Melbourne Zoo’s first elephant, was hit by a violent storm from India in 1883. It is said to have wrapped its trunk around an iron pole and held on.