I doubt whether Hitler, even in his saner moments, could ever have had the delightful eccentricity of mind to ask for a duckbilled platypus in the middle of a war! (Fleay, 1980. p56.)

Platypus (Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus) illustrated by Charles Dessalines D' Orbigny (1806-1876). Digitally enhanced from...
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Britain, Churchill, Famous, People, Politician
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The platypus goes to war.

Due to some recent reading I was reminded of the top secret war time mission to send a platypus to Winston Churchill and thought perhaps the story of the platypus at war was worth repeating here. Churchill had something of a fascination with exotic wildlife and you don’t get much more exotic than the duck-billed platypus, perhaps our most unique and fascinating native animal. The semi aquatic, egg laying mammal, with venom laden spurs on the male of the species has fascinated ever since its presence was discovered.

When Australia’s war time minister for external affairs H. V. Evatt heard of Churchill’s fascination with the platypus he saw an opportunity to secure support for Australia’s war effort from the notoriously Euro focused Churchill, and decided to “initiate the first instance of platypus diplomacy”, (Cushing & Markwell, 2009), encouraging Churchill’s request for several animals to be captured and sent to the UK. This was no small undertaking. At the time it was already known that the animal was notoriously sensitive to changes in its environment, extremely difficult to keep alive in captivity and possessed of a prodigious and specialised appetite. There was also considerable opposition to the export and exploitation of Australian native animals at the time, particularly an animal as distinctive and temperamental as the platypus. At a time of war time austerity, the re-location of several such difficult animals seems like a frivolous use of resources, not to mention a dangerous undertaking for the unlucky animals selected.

Fortunately for the platypus the request and subsequent task of providing a platypus for Churchill fell to the eminently knowledgeable naturalist David Fleay. While preserved platypus had reached Europe no living animal had ever successfully reached those distant shores. Fleay was able to convince the “Canberra gentlemen” of the hopelessly quixotic nature of such a request and that they should allow him to begin the process of locating a single suitable animal and properly prepare the animal for the challenge ahead.

Fleay duly began trapping platypus in the search for a suitable animal and on the auspicious date of April 1st 1943, captured a young male who was promptly christened Winston. As Fleay wrote in his account of the event, Winston was an; “honoured guest on a special mission, he received food aplenty, on a bill settled regularly by Mr Curtin’s government”, (Fleay, 1980, p54). Fleay set about taming and preparing the little animal for the momentous journey ahead. A mobile platypusary was constructed to Fleah’s strict instructions. A young sailor was trained as platypus keeper and on the 27th of September 1943 Winston was installed on M.V. Port Phillip for the journey to old blighty.

Fleay embarked on intensive correspondence with London zoo to ensure Winston’s on going needs would be meet on arrival and a suitable keeper could be trained in the peculiar needs of one of the world’s most unique and demanding animals.

The ship sailed with no fanfare and set out for the submarine invested waters of the north, armed with canon, anti aircraft guns, depth charges and 50 000 specially chosen worms to meet the dietary requirements of young Winston. A slightly more circuitous route than originally planned had to be implemented which lengthened the journey somewhat, but despite the inherent risk the journey across the Atlantic proceeded without incident, until the 6th of November. Four days from Liverpool the Port Phillip came to the attention of stalking enemy submarines. Depth charges were launched.

Powerful hydraulic shocks shook the area around the Port Phillip, but the ship and crew escaped their hunters. Winston, however, was not so lucky and the plucky little animal was found dead in his tank. Platypus are hyper sensitive animals that hunt by electroreception through their nerve packed super sensitive bills. Fleay believed the concussive shock of the depth charges had been enough to kill the little animal. It also emerged that Winston may have been weakened by a reduced diet, as his on board keeper had started to ration the worms due to the lengthened nature of the voyage. The valiant if vain attempt to satisfy the curiosity of Britain’s war time leader can go down in history as Gerald Durrell described it; “as one of the most gloriously quixotic things” (Fleay, 1980, p56) or as Fleay wrote:

Humanity being torn asunder by a most terrible war and in the middle of it Churchill, with his cigar, trenchantly demanding a platypus (of all things) and on the other side of the world David Fleay carefully and patiently training a young platypus and preparing it for the long voyage through submarine infested waters. What a pity the affair did not have a happy ending.

But even so, what a magnificently idiotic thing to do at that time. I doubt whether Hitler, even in his saner moments, could ever have had the delightful eccentricity of mind to ask for a duckbilled platypus in the middle of a war! (Fleay, 1980, p56.)

As Australians we really should appreciate, celebrate and protect this unique animal, we currently have a privilege that the great Winston Churchill did not have, in that we can see this amazing animal both in the wild if we are very, very lucky and in captivity in a few select locations in Australia. With ongoing habitat depletion, drought and fires our iconic little Australian is increasingly threatened, we should never forget that and take what steps we can to ensure their continued existence. Only one international zoo has a platypus on display. The experience of seeing this magical animal is almost unique to Australia, lets not take the privilege and responsibility for granted.

Carnarvon gorge in the central Queensland highlands is one of the best places to see platypus in the wild, we visited last year and I felt very lucky and privileged to have several platypus encounters; our blog post on that visit.

Platypus, Carnarvon Gorge 2019

For anyone who might be interested in reading further the following resources may be of interest:

Cushing, N and Markwell, K (2009) Platypus diplomacy: animal gifts in international relations. Journal of Australian studies, 2009-09-01, Vol.33 (3). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14443050903079664

Fleay, D. (1980) Paradoxical Platypus: hobnobbing with duckbills. Jacaranda press.

Lawrence, N. (2012). The prime minister and the platypus: A paradox goes to war. Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences Vol.43 (1) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.09.001

I can highly recommend David Fleays remarkable book Paradoxical Platypus: hobnobbing with duckbills an absolute gem of a book which I will have more to say about in another post.

One thought on “Churchill and the Platypus

  1. Well, that’s an interesting bit of history. I remember the excitement of seeing my first platypus in the wild – quite some time ago now, before children! But, yes definitely important to do what we can to protect this wonderful native species.

    Liked by 1 person

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