A Platypus for the Prime Minister

In February 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded that several live duck-billed platypuses be sent from Australia to Britain. After strenuous efforts of international cooperation between zoos and political officials, a vigorous young male named ‘Winston’ was prepared for a sea voyage and shipped off. London Zoo prepared a grand opening of the ‘platypussary’ and the British media encouraged national effort in acquiring sufficient worms, to be posted to the Zoo packed in earth-filled jars.

Find out what happened to this illustrious ex-pat platypus in my Talking Point feature in the October 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine.

You can also read my academic article from March 2012 in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences on the same topic here.

Here is the story in pictures:

Special worms CHUR 1:58 B

Ship report CHUR 1:58 B
Telegrams from the Churchill Archives detailing the promise for the platypus to be sent, and Winston’s demise. 


Churchill and white kangaroo
Churchill was a great animal enthusiast, and was given an array of exotic creatures for his menagerie, some of which were kept at Chartwell house, others at London Zoo. These included the white kangaroos from Australia, black swans and a Lion called Rota. 
Echidna ZSL 1926 Official Guide
London Zoo had already successfully kept an echidna called Daydream in 1903, but only one platypus had previously made it to a zoo outside of Australia, Bronx Zoo in New York had kept one alive for only a week. 
Splash the platypus had been kept and tamed in Australia by Robert Eadie, and was sent, stuffed, to Churchill after its demise to sit on his desk while he waited for Winston the platypus to be prepared by David Fleay at Healesville Wildlife Reserve in Australia and shipped to Britain.
LIFE Fleay platypus
Fleay had managed to breed platypuses in captivity for the first time in Healesville soon before Churchill’s request. He tried again to successfully install ex-pat platypuses in Bronx Zoo in 1947. He took Cecil, Betty and Penelope to a specially built platypussary there, with mixed success: they survived just fine, but never bred. It was the last time anyone tried to keep platypuses outside of Australia.
A mock-up of the sign for the newly arrived platypuses in Bronx Zoo

platypus postcard 1940

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