“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!” This was a reaction from Australian scientist and naturalist David Fleay after reading a request for platypuses to be shipped to the United Kingdom from Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The year was 1943, and the Second World War was far from over. Even though the Germans had suffered defeat in Stalingrad at the hands of Soviet forces, everyone was still in fear’s sickening grip.
Well, almost everyone. Except for some of the top officials who were planning war strategies, including diplomatic strategies.
Having learned Churchill’s passion for collecting exotic wildlife and his deep fascination with platypuses — a live species which had never been seen in the UK — Australia’s wartime minister for external affairs, H. V. Evatt, took it as an opportunity to gain support from the British prime minister. At that time, Churchill was solely focused on Europe, and Australia was in need of reinforcement in the Pacific.
Evatt succeeded, and a request from Churchill came for 6 platypuses to be sent to Britain. The government officials handed the assignment to Dr. Fleay, who argued about the “hopelessly quixotic nature of such a request” and said that they should instead let him catch and prepare just a single male platypus that might survive the arduous journey from Australia to England, especially since the war was still ongoing.
Dr. Fleay was able to capture a young platypus, which he nicknamed Winston, but the next step was to get the sensitive duck-billed mammal ready for the long trip and life in captivity in the UK. Hopefully, Churchill would place the platypus under the care of the London Zoo, where he had earlier entrusted his lion, named Rota.
Winston the platypus finally boarded M.V. Port Phillip in September, where there was already a wooden platypusary to house him below deck along with “enough earthworms, crayfish, mealworms and fresh water to have refuelled Winston on a complete round the world voyage.” Dr. Fleay had been coordinating with the London Zoo as well about the proper care of the platypus.
Unfortunately, Winston did not arrive alive on British soil. M.V. Port Phillip, which was heavily armed with cannons, aircraft guns, and explosives, had taken a different route to avoid enemy encounters in the submarine-infested waters of the north. The journey took slightly longer, which meant that the platypus’s food supply had to be rationed to ensure it would have adequate sustenance.
The ship managed to sail safely across the north and was nearing its destination. But, four days before reaching Liverpool, a tragedy struck. The ship detected German submarines and launched depth charges to destroy the enemies.
The ship and its crew made it alive, except for Winston, who was found dead in his tank.
“Tragically, the heavy concussion killed the platypus then and there,” wrote Dr. Fleay. “After all, a small animal equipped with a nerve-packed, super-sensitive bill, able to detect even the delicate movements of a mosquito wriggler on stream bottoms in the dark of night, cannot hope to cope with man-made enormities such as violent explosions.”
The renowned naturalist described his endeavor as a “magnificently idiotic thing to do at that time,” but he did it with the purest intention for the young platypus to live a peaceful and cherished life in the London Zoo.
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