During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reached out to Australia for a very strange request. Churchill proclaimed that he wanted platypuses to be shipped over, and what followed was a bizarre and sad story of how one platypus was used to boost Britain’s political agenda.
In March 1943, at the height of the war, Churchill sent a very odd telegram to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin – requesting that six platypuses be sent to Britain as soon as possible. Churchill’s request wasn’t atypical for the British prime minister, who had a love for exotic animals. At the time, he already had a large herd of eclectic pets, including white kangaroos, black swans and even a lion. Beyond this, though, Churchill’s desire for platypuses was also a political move. During the 1800s, both British and French naturalists disagreed on the nature of platypuses – whether they were mammals or not. This war of words was aided by Australia’s lack of research on the duck-billed platypus, and Churchill’s request for a group of them to be housed in London Zoo would ultimately give Britain a chance to prove their zoological rivals wrong. Housing the ‘exotic’ animals would also help to boost Churchill’s public image, cementing him as a charismatic leader that wouldn’t shy from curiosity, and who would push for the greater good of his country.
Despite this, Churchill’s request was still rather controversial. At the time, strict laws in place forbid the removal of platypuses from their native habitat in Australia; however, due to Churchill’s influence and importance, Curtin agreed to make a one-time exception. The process of securing the animals and ensuring their long, safe journey was a time-consuming affair, so to tide Churchill over in the interim, Curtin sent the British leader a taxidermy skin of a platypus known as ‘Splash’. Splash had been somewhat of a celebrity during his captivity years, thanks to being tamed and trained by Robert Eadie, and Splash’s taxidermy body sat on Churchill’s desk while operations were organised back in Australia.
David Fleay, the keeper at Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria, was tasked not only with finding the platypuses to send across, but also with liaising with zoo staff in Britain. Fleay helped officials to realise that the reality of catching, training and preparing six live platypuses to send across safely was an unattainable feat, and, in turn, it was decided that one young male platypus (appropriately named Winston) would be sent.
In September 1943, Winston was loaded aboard the MV Port Phillip in a state-of-the-art enclosure and departed from Melbourne. He was accompanied by a platypus keeper – which was actually just the 18-year-old ship cadet. Regardless, Winston was fed a daily diet of 750 worms and looked after to the best of the cadet’s abilities; but unfortunately, it was not enough to save poor Winston from death. The voyage through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic Ocean was risky, but it wasn’t until 6 November 1943 that tragedy struck. Only four days from their anticipated arrival in Liverpool, the MV Port Phillip was attacked by submarines, and Winston was soon found dead in his tank.
Winston’s death was due to a range of factors, according to experts. Platypus bills are extremely sensitive – featuring the ability to detect minuscule vibrations from their prey via electrosensory receptors – so it was deemed possible that the attack caused Winston’s bill to overstimulate and kill him. This was coupled with the fact that the route to Britain was longer than originally planned, which meant that Winston’s daily 750 worm ration was cut down to a mere 600 – leaving him substantially weaker and more vulnerable to a change in his environment.
After Winston’s death, and after the war, Fleay made another attempt to take platypuses outside Australia. In 1947, he took three of the iconic animals to New York’s Bronx Zoo in the hopes of breeding them; however, this was unsuccessful. Another failed attempt was made in 1958, and to this day, the only platypuses that live outside of Australia are located at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in California.