The Search for Winston Churchill’s ‘Magnificently Idiotic’ Platypus and More Bizarre Australian Animal Tales Abroad | Wildlife

meIn early 1943, World War II broke out in multiple theaters. Hitler’s army had just suffered a historic defeat at Stalingrad, but submarines still roamed the Atlantic and Britain’s resources were stretched thin. So it must have come as a surprise to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin when a telegram arrived from Winston Churchill requesting that six platypuses be sent to Britain immediately, in a scheme that conservationist Gerald Durrell described as “magnificently idiotic”.

Historians have tried to place this episode in a larger context of empire and international geopolitics, but it seems Churchill just 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 sensibly kept in the 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 platypuses to England and caring for them once they got there was unrealistic at any time, least of all in the middle of a war. Instead, they agreed to transport a live monotreme: a healthy boy that Fleay caught and named Winston. When Australian Foreign Secretary Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt met with Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt that May in Washington, he cabled the Commonwealth Health Director General: “Churchill in Washington is very anxious that the platypus go away immediately. What is the current situation?”

Four months later, Winston boarded the heavily armed MV Port Phillip, where he was quartered below deck in a wooden platypus built by Fleay, who stocked the ship with “enough earthworms, crayfish, mealworms and fresh water to have resupplyed Winston for a full round.” the trip around the world”. The ship left Melbourne in September, crossed the Pacific and passed through the Panama Canal with Winston “cheered up and ready for his meal.” A press release was drawn up announcing Winston’s arrival in the UK and requesting that worms be shipped from all over Britain, packed in jars with “moldy 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
The Duck-billed Platypus, from The Mammals of Australia by Helena Forde and Harriet Scott, 1869. Photo: Public Domain

Unfortunately, Winston did not make it. Four days from Liverpool, the ship’s sonar detected a German submarine, and the captain responded by detonating depth charges. The ship and her crew survived, but there was a new Australian war casualty: little Winston. “Tragically, the strong concussion killed the platypus right then and there,” Fleay wrote. “After all, a tiny animal equipped with a super-sensitive, nerve-filled beak, capable of detecting even the delicate movements of a mosquito moving at the bottom of a stream in the dead of night, cannot hope to cope. to man-made enormities like violent explosions.”


The 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, 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 were driven around England in specially designed wagons and displayed at local fairs.

Two black swans arrived in England on the Buffalo in 1800 and were presented to the Queen, but unfortunately one died soon after, and the other “took advantage of the freedom given him…and was shot down by a nobleman’s gamekeeper like was flying across 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 at the Investigator in 1810. A pickled wombat and a platypus they had arrived in London in 1799, delivered in a brandy barrel, which promptly burst over the head of a woman who was carrying it on her head after unloading it.

The presence of kangaroos in particular was seen as further evidence of British superiority over the kangarooless French during the Napoleonic Wars. 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 south coast of Australia (or “Terre Terre”). Napoleon” as depicted in Baudin’s letters) with 33 large boxes filled with scientific specimens and 72 highly seasick live animals, including kangaroos, dingoes, long-necked tortoises, 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 pygmy emus, a species that became extinct soon after; the last surviving Australian pygmy emu died in France in 1822.

In 1803 a kangaroo appeared in the royal menagerie in Vienna. By 1830, writes Penny Olson, “kangaroos (and kangaroos) were appearing in public and private zoos, museums, plays, and circuses from England to Russia.” Wombats were sent to France, dingoes to London, and black swans to Copenhagen, Cologne, Java, Kolkata, and Paris. However, by the first half of the 19th century, menageries were considered increasingly 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 Victorian Acclimatization Society, whose main business was importing European animals to be released into the Australian bush, sent Australian fish, ducks, dingoes and magpies to the Zoological Society of London for research; In 1865 alone, the society shipped animals, mostly kangaroos, emus, and black swans, to St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Cologne, Copenhagen, Kolkata, Mauritius, Sicily, Yangon, and Java. The Lords of the Admiralty in London made Her Majesty’s ships available to her for the transport of specimens “so long as there is no expense to the department”.

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

There are limited accounts of how animals fared on international travel, but clearly they did not. Many died along the way and those who survived had to endure crowded conditions and storms that could last for days, which must have been a novel experience for an animal that had spent its life bounding across open plains, burrowing underground or nesting. in treetops

The ASV’s first annual report noted the challenges of transporting wild animals:

The usual thing with individuals -and even in the first instance with companies- that have animals to send is to lower them to the ship at the last moment and put them in the care of the steward, the cook or the butcher without knowing anything about their disposition or character, or the number of other duties you may have to attend to. Everything goes well as long as the weather is good. But a storm breaks, every man is called to his proper post, meanwhile burrows and cages are swept across the seas, animals stumble over each other and lose their wits, and when the gale passes it is found that half of them are mutilated or dead.

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

Of course, it wasn’t easier to come the other way. In 1886, Dudley Le Souef bought zebras, reindeer, and wild 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 zoo’s doctor. boat. Two years earlier, Dudley spent a month in Singapore with a shopping list of animals, including a rhino and a tapir (a large mammal native to South America). He bought two tapirs and shipped them to Melbourne while he waited for a rhino to come up for sale. A month later, he finally got hold of a rhino, which made it as far as Sydney before taking 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 took three months and cost £400, but it wasn’t a complete flop: he brought home other interesting animals, including a black panther, leopard, tiger and some orangutans, which were added to the zoo’s collection.

Two years later, Le Souef successfully brought back a tapir from Europe. A rhinoceros proved more of a challenge, but one was finally purchased in Kolkata. It was loaded onto the SS Bancoora along with a young elephant, monkeys and parrots. On July 13, 1891, the steamboat 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, zoo attendance doubled). The treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean did not spare the traveling animals. The ship carrying Ranee, Melbourne Zoo’s first elephant, was hit by a severe storm on its way from India in 1883. It reportedly wrapped its trunk around an iron stanchion and clung on.

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