BBC Wildlife Magazine


In the midst of war, Britain’s Prime Minister was obsessed with platypuses. Natalie Lawrence investigat­es why.


While World War II raged in September 1943, a ship departed from Melbourne docks carrying a most unusual passenger. On board was a duck-billed platypus, a beady-eyed young male called Winston. He was ensconced in state-of-the-art accommodat­ion: a portable platypussa­ry built especially to house him as comfortabl­y as possible on the long journey to Liverpool.

Before being loaded onto the heavily armed MV Port Phillip, Winston had been trained lovingly for months by the keeper at Healesvill­e Sanctuary, David Fleay, in the hope of making the journey as smooth as could be. An 18-year-old ship’s cadet had also been appointed ‘platypus keeper’, charged with proffering Winston’s daily diet of 700 worms and tending to the animal’s needs.

The considerab­le efforts of Fleay and others in Australia to successful­ly catch and prepare Winston for his voyage were matched by the collective excitement at the prospect of his arrival in London. Keepers at London Zoo exchanged flurries of telegrams with those in Healesvill­e Sanctuary, discussing how to build the ideal platypussa­ry in which to keep Winston: how many tunnels, how much bedding space, where the worms were best dispensed.

A media campaign was planned to herald Winston’s arrival and galvanise the British public into catering for his voracious appetite. They were to be asked to send in freshly caught worms to the zoo in jars, “packed in mould or moist tea leaves”. This was not purely a publicity stunt: London Zoo officials were genuinely concerned about their ability to keep up with the platypus’s daily earthworm consumptio­n. The whole operation, though, was to be kept hidden from the public eye until the mammal made it safely to his new quarters at the zoo, in case the worst should happen.

In 1943, no platypus had ever been brought to England alive, nor has one since. Few Antipodean mammals had, though an echidna called ‘Daydream’ that arrived at London Zoo in 1903 had lived happily for several years. Only one platypus had ever made it to a zoo outside of Australia, the lone survivor of five animals previously shipped to Bronx Zoo in New York. It lived for just seven days after its arrival, during which it attracted vast crowds of visitors. In an effort to spare Winston the same rapid demise, his public appearance­s were to be limited to just an hour a day.

The reason for this strange wartime escapade? The whim of Winston’s namesake: Winston Churchill. In March 1943 the British Prime Minister telegramme­d Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, requesting six platypuses be sent to Britain forthwith. There was a strict law in place preventing the removal of platypuses from Australia, but, given who was asking, Curtin decided to make an exception, just this once.

Seeing a live platypus had been a long-term ambition of Churchill’s. He already kept a colourful menagerie containing black swans, a lion called Rota, white kangaroos and various other strange beasts. Many of these were gifts from individual­s or organisati­ons hoping to gain favour or publicity.

Despite the demands of war, Churchill was invested in the welfare of his animals, correspond­ing regularly about them with keepers and personal aides. The animals themselves were objects of great national interest because of their illustriou­s owner. Rota the lion, for example, was housed at London Zoo rather than at Churchill’s home, Chartwell House, and featured in the press. When one of the black swans went missing in 1954, a Europewide search ensued before the bird was retrieved from Holland. Churchill’s bird was an important diplomatic matter.

There was no expedited option for shipping


platypuses, so Curtin sent Churchill the taxidermie­d skin of another platypus, ‘Splash’, as an interim gift. This animal had been a minor celebrity during his four years in captivity in Australia. He became almost entirely tame from his training by Robert Eadie, who had, as it happened, once saved Churchill’s life in the Boer War in South Africa. Splash’s posthumous reincarnat­ion occupied Churchill’s desk while Operation Platypus was underway.

David Fleay at Healesvill­e received Churchill’s request for a personal posse of platypuses with some surprise. He was then faced with fielding the bevvy of political aides, naval officials and zoo staff involved, as well as the impossibil­ity of catching, keeping and sending six platypuses to Britain.

Fleay eventually convinced diplomatic officials that the plan to send six animals was mere fantasy. Aside from the fact that no zoo existed that could cater for so many platypuses, he assured them that “six freshly captured platypuses, housed on a ship… would suffer an immediate form of hysteria, accelerati­ng to hopeless stampede and early death”. The young male dubbed Winston would be the sole focus of the operation, and he would be challenge enough.

Churchill received a telegram in April from his aide with the news that “the Australian Government have suspended their much-cherished law […] one is now on its way to you accompanie­d by 50,000 specially chosen worms”, and the suggestion that the cat, Nelson, might need to be exiled if the platypus was to reside at Chartwell.

Despite Churchill’s enthusiasm for exotic creatures, the request was a very strange one – almost as paradoxica­l as the physical form of this mammal (a member of the egg-laying monotreme group). Why did Churchill want this curious and nigh-on impossible to keep Antipodean beast transporte­d across U-boat-infested waters? Political and practical resources were already stretched to their limits. Zoos worldwide were being bombed and were struggling to find sufficient animal feed. Why was no expense spared in preparing Winston and building his custom portable platypussa­ry?

These facts may seem inexplicab­le from any rational standpoint. There were, however, very good reasons why Churchill wanted that particular animal at that particular time. That platypus was entering the war effort.

The natural history of the duck-billed platypus had always been a politicise­d one. In the 19th century, British and French naturalist­s had waged wars of words about the true nature of the platypus. Whether they laid eggs and produced milk; whether their strange hybrid forms and egg-laying meant they were mammals or not. Australian naturalist­s tended to be uncooperat­ive, so it was difficult for those in Europe to get any specimens or direct observatio­ns to settle these debates.

Even by the time Churchill made his request, many details of platypus life history were still under question. A coterie of live platypuses in London Zoo, especially if they could breed, would help establish British authority over these scientific rivalries and cement London Zoo’s place as a leader in zoological research.

The British public was not particular­ly aware of these old scientific controvers­ies. Yet accomplish­ing a task both so frivolous and apparently impossible at a time when day-to-day life was strained could only be good for raising British spirits. The zoo already provided a pleasant war-time distractio­n: thousands of people visited the institutio­n daily during special exhibition­s, such as the ‘Chimps’ Tea Party’. A billed, egg-laying amphibious mammal would be a similarly exciting spectacle.

Acquiring a never-before-seen zoo inhabitant would also boost Churchill’s image as an eccentric, charismati­c leader – as well as public morale. The collective nationwide effort of feeding its incredible appetite for worms would certainly add another meaning to the wartime slogan ‘Dig for Victory’.

But the Prime Minister’s animals were not only matters for diplomacy, they could be matters of diplomacy. Creatures could be emissaries, especially iconic and engaging ones such as the platypus. They could be gifts with political meaning: tokens to build alliances, curry favour or repair broken bonds.

Churchill’s request might have aimed to improve strained relations between Australia and Britain. Despite giving Britain invaluable military support, Australia had been neglected by its ally when herself in dire need of boats and aircraft.


Prime Minister Curtin had publicly suggested that the traditiona­l bond with Britain should be abandoned in favour of one with the USA.

Churchill was not prepared to cut ties with a previous British colony, nor to lose one of the key members of the British Commonweal­th, however. From this perspectiv­e, his request could be seen as reassertin­g British political power: exerting pressure to make an exception to the law forbidding the removal of these unusual animals from Australia. But there was a more important symbolic role for this particular species.

From the earliest origins of menageries and animal collection­s, animals have been used as tokens of imperial ownership. The flagship animals of continents – elephants, giraffes, rhinos, tigers – have been used to represent their regions of origin. Zoo organisati­on and decoration, for example incorporat­ing ‘oriental’ buildings or ‘African savannah’ scenery, mapped out colonised continents in the very architectu­re of the zoo itself, even well into the 20th century.

Access to animals has historical­ly depended on trade routes, colonial ventures and diplomatic relations, so a geographic­ally comprehens­ive zoological collection was also a sign of global power. The platypus played this role perfectly: the giving of Australia’s totem beast was a symbol of continued allegiance to Britain. Fleay described the platypus as “the most famous of all Australian creatures, because of its duck-like sensitive bill, its lovely seal-like fur, the beaver-like tail, the short, strong limbs with webbed feet and digging claws, the possession of a venom apparatus and hollow spurs on the ankles of the male, the laying of eggs and the suckling of young”. Winston signified that Australia was still part of the political menagerie.

The platypus was also a ‘gift’. One that Churchill had requested knowing it had many strings attached. The efforts required to transport Winston had created a debt that Churchill would be only too glad to repay. Fleay himself wrote: “might not the little animals be urgers for more planes and guns?” In the year of Operation Platypus, Churchill finally heeded Australia’s numerous requests for military assistance by sending over warships and more of “the latest type of tropicalis­ed Spitfire”, and included Australia in the War Council. Not only political but zoological relations were forged by the export of this chimerical creature. Quite simply, nobody knew anything about platypus husbandry outside of Australia. Fleay himself became the first person to breed a platypus in captivity in 1943. The prospect of keeping a platypus was a daunting one for the keepers at London Zoo. The impending arrival stimulated unpreceden­ted cooperatio­n between the Antipodean and British keepers, in discussion­s about the ways to house, feed, train and amuse a platypus successful­ly. The circulatio­n of zoological and zookeeping knowledge has certainly developed since then.

Sadly, Winston never made it to the platypussa­ry that had been so carefully constructe­d for him. Though the journey through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic was risky, the voyage proved uneventful. Winston was always “lively and ready for his food”. But on 6 November, just ffour days from Liverpool, the Port PhillipP suffered a submarine attack. WWinston was found dead in his tank immediatel­y afterwards.

It was possible that the ship fifiring defensive depth charges ooverstimu­lated the electrosen­sory rreceptors in Winston’s bill. PPlatypus bills are packed with mmechanose­nsory and electrosen­sory rreceptors able to detect tiny vvibration­s from invertebra­te prey. TThe vibrations from heavy-duty wweaponry may well have been ccataclysm­ic. The ship had also ffollowed a longer route than pplanned: the keeper-cadet had been fforced to ration Winston from his uusual 750 earthworms a day to just 6600. The poor platypus may have bbeen weakened by lack of food.

The Royal College of Surgeons aasked for the body and it was sent tto be stuffed for their collection­s, ththough its whereabout­s are not currently known. Churchill had to be content with the taxidermie­d Splash. He telegramme­d the Australian Prime Minister in late November to inform him of Winston’s death and express his “great disappoint­ment”. The public was none the wiser, due to the secrecy under which the whole operation had been conducted. The episode was simply hidden away in Churchill’s files of private telegrams, currently held at the Churchill Archives in Cambridge.

Winston the platypus never became the illustriou­s ‘ex-pat’ so many hoped him to be. Yet all of the efforts made to send him halfway around the world did help to build political and zoological ties between Britain and Australia. After the war, Fleay tried again to successful­ly install platypuses in a zoo outside of Australia. He took Cecil, Betty and Penelope to a platypussa­ry in New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1947. They lasted longer than their predecesso­rs, but never managed to breed. Despite all the attempts to globalise the platypus and biological knowledge about it, it has stubbornly remained a zoological and very Australian enigma.


 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? NATALIE LAWRENCE researched this story for a Masters degree in history of science at the University of Cambridge.
NATALIE LAWRENCE researched this story for a Masters degree in history of science at the University of Cambridge.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom