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

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Talking Point -

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.

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