Decoding the ‘wonder’ of animals: on Jack Ashby’s Platypus Matters

Australian governments continue to treat Australian animals with disdain. There are no adequate protections of species, never mind individual animals, and extinctions are occurring at a horrendous rate. In the Guardian of June 2nd, we read:

… Sussan Ley, in one of her final acts as environment minister [for the outgoing conservative federal government], removed the requirement for 176 plants, animals and habitats, including the Tasmanian devil and the whale shark, to have legislated plans designed to prevent their extinction.

A new book considers the desperate need to stop this damage. Jack Ashby’s Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian is an argument about the wonders of Australian mammals and the Australian environment as a whole. He writes:

In my view, all this is tied into the way Australian animals are represented to the outside world, and in Australia itself.

However, Ashby’s argument that this disdain is embedded in a negative view of Australian animals inherent in the colonial ‘legacy’ is only part of a much larger picture of exploitation. The outsider and insider views of Australian animals are less of a problem than the rapacious desire for wealth and power inside Australia, and the absolute ignorance and indifference to animals beyond their direct relevance or use to many people’s lives. Out of sight, out of mind. And strangely, the ‘weirdness’ that Ashby laments Australians applying to ‘their wildlife’ is probably the only reason anything has survived—because it’s seen as unlike anything anywhere else in the world. In other words, Ashby misses the nationalism, the parochialism and the profiteering around this ‘weirdness’, which are sadly the only values that operate as generic ‘protections’ to these ‘Australian animals’.

Platypuses aren’t ‘weird’ and were never a ‘hoax’. Agreed. They are mammals that swim, dive, dig burrows, lay eggs and have an incredibly sensitive ‘bill’. They are not a paradox. Agreed. And echidnas are complex animals worthy of anyone’s respect. Agreed.

I write this having come in from looking at echidna diggings not far from my house. We learn that ‘puggles’ are the name of echidna offspring that drink milk from patches in their mother’s ‘pouch’. All of this, via colonial taxonomy. ‘Wombat’ is a Durag word, though ‘science’ claims to have recently confirmed that the reason why the bare-nosed wombat does ‘cube-shaped poos’ is territorial (so they don’t roll away). I am sure it’s an observation Indigenous Australians have made for tens of thousands of years. ‘Primitive’ has been aimed at the Australian lands by European scientists (and others) in a process of reductionism and disdain deeply entangled in colonial opportunism. Yes, and that’s wrong in every way. Ashby deals with these issues in a variety of—often contradictory—manners.

This book says so many appropriate things, especially with regard to the toxic legacy of colonialism, but is a mass of contradictions I don’t think the author has fully processed. Ironically, for instance, in an argument against hierarchies (particularly of marsupials vs placental mammals), hierarchies are constantly deployed.

While pointing out the diminishing and demeaning terms used to describe Australian mammals, Jack Ashby—assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge—often uses descriptors that I would ‘poetically’ argue trivialise or amuse, but seems unconscious of doing so. The ‘weird’ nature of Australian mammals is a perspective issue, an othering, but this is a book full of such otherings. Showing that (some) people believed, say, the thylacine to be stupid and thus deserving of extinction strikes me as a redundant argument. Extinction is always wrong and the human paths to it are always self-exonerating.

Ashby is concerned with how we talk about Australian mammals (and animals in general), as people will necessarily be more receptive to cautious and respectful ‘talk’ than they will be to a language of disdain. But he then extends this into how ‘their physical remains are presented,’ leading to one of the major contradictions in the book. The presentation of animals (and he goes into a long grotesque admiring description of the taxidermist’s ‘art’ per ‘science’) is presented as an act of knowledge and legitimacy that completely overrides the intactness of the animal itself and is so often in denial of the place it comes from.

The author is so inside his saviour argument about the wonder of Australian mammals—particularly monotremes and marsupials—and so convinced that what he does as a zoologist is the way things should now be done, as opposed to the often overtly brutal ways of the past (colonial collectors and scientists killing thousands of animals to get specimens), that an ethical conundrum arises. Ashby is nominally respectful of things he should be respectful of, but he doesn’t perceive his own complicity in the problems.

This book is overtly anti-racist and is all about conserving ecologies, and it acknowledges the colonialism of natural history, but it also is entirely inside what it critiques. It’s the most bizarre contradiction I’ve encountered in decades of critical writing, reviewing and activism. Here’s someone determined to do good, rectify wrongs, and help (literally) save the planet, but he’s also part of the colonial machine he critiques in such obvious and sometimes—to my mind—deplorable ways, as well as having an anthropocentric view of animals he doesn’t seem to perceive.

Ashby writes: ‘In my mind, anyone who thinks that killing animals is fun is fundamentally wrong, but having stalked hundreds of wombats for less murderous reasons …,’ yet there is no doubt reading this book that he has found the act of stalking for science plenty of fun. A mix of business and pleasure, or ecology and tourism?

My prime concern revolves around the speciesist view, wherein the individual animal is secondary to the conservation of the species itself. In working against the (false) evolutionary hierarchies that he rightfully claims have led to a primitivising of Australian ‘wildlife’, and in attempting to prove the ‘divergent evolutions’ of species, Ashby fails to account for the quiddity of the animal itself. Further, and even more troubling, is the circumstantial elision of Indigenous peoples with fauna. While making an argument that Indigenous people and indigenous fauna are (falsely) viewed by some (the British ‘general public’?) as primitive as a result of colonial-imperial exploitation, Ashby ‘inadvertently’ reinforces this very falsehood. This a truism that belongs to racist European discourse, especially from the age of the naturalist-explorer, but the argument as presented here is unsubtle and potentially disrespectful. People and animals should not be conflated.

Ashby details the loss of billions of animals caused by cats, foxes, land-clearing, extreme fire events brought on by climate change, and notes the horrendous rate of extinction of Australian mammals, but should not, I feel, ever equate the human condition with that dynamic when talking of Indigenous Australians.

As Ashby himself notes, citing important Indigenous thinker Bruce Pascoe (in Dark Emu), an immensely sophisticated socio-political and scientific system of interaction between people and place pre-existed European invasion of Australia, and he strongly lam

ents the ongoing colonialism in Australia. Yet, in his constant treks to Australia, he is also complicit with an ongoing colonialism of environment. It is problematic in the contemporary moment to align humans with non-humans (all mammals?) while at the same time contesting the objectionable ‘legal’ notion of ‘terra nullius’ (the declaration that there was no claim on country prior to European invasion). Ashby has come to the realisation that ‘settlement’ might be a wrong word but, given that his work is a determined attempt to address the ongoing colonial wrongs, this seems bizarrely ‘epiphanic’. And in this thirtieth anniversary year of the Mabo decision, more critical thought around how a non-Indigenous person discusses this should be considered.

This book is filled with biological and behavioural insight, and detail on the specific biological attributes of mammals such as the platypus and echidna (a good chunk of the book is a sleuthing recounting of the great ‘egg-laying debate’ that challenged science and evolutionary theory from the late eighteenth through to the mid-nineteenth century)—two favourites of Ashby’s. But the favouritism is also part of the problem. There’s a consumer fetishisation that is connected with zoological collecting—from the horrendous early-colonial practice of collecting echidna embryos to the massive destructions of platypus.

Nonetheless, a ‘general’ reader will learn much about reproduction, the development and rearing of young, how appendages are angled and positioned to dig, burrow, climb, swim, dive, propel themselves across various terrains, and will leave this book with a sense of having been informed by an ‘authority’ who has viewed the living and dead, the surviving and the lost, in as many ‘scientific’ and also excursionist ways possible. The author has fully immersed themselves in his subject/s. The sensitivity of the platypus’s bill as it searches for food with eyes and ears closed under water is described almost viscerally—which makes the ‘scientific’ distancing all the more confronting at times. There’s a massive tension between ‘zoology’ and ‘ecology’ in the work, be it in the field, laboratory or museum collection.

So, even with the trap-and-release approach to monitoring the wellbeing of a species, which one might or might not argue is necessary (he certainly would argue it is essential), there’s a failure to discuss the consequence of such impacting and intrusive ‘methods’. In the 2006 article ‘Trapping small mammals for research and management: how many die and why?’ in Australian Mammology, we read:

Thirteen surveys provided detailed information for small ground mammal trapping, recording 111 deaths from 3651 small mammal captures. Box trap mortality in these surveys ranged from 0-7.5%, deaths being attributed to cold temperatures (generally winter) and multiple captures of individuals. Harp trap mortality stemmed from overheating, overcrowding and predation. Post-capture handling also contributed to mortality.

Modes of ‘conservation’ by ‘ecologists’ have consequences, but these are not considered in any relevant way in this book.

Moreover, in pointing out the distressing and traumatic provenance of many zoological specimens held in British (and other) museum collections—for example, the extinct thylacine skins that were collected by the same bounty hunter who shot Aboriginal people, also for a bounty, in Tasmania—the author never suggests repatriation of Australian fauna specimens. One would like to think this is because to suggest so would be to create a disturbing and offensive elision of people and animals, but that doesn’t seem the issue here. Rather, it’s that ‘science’, even when it is conducted with little ethical regard, remains science—and Ashby himself makes scientific research use of animal body parts collected by reprehensible, unethical ‘scientists’. Yes, ‘Science is colonialism’. And as a keeper of animal body parts not only for ‘research’ but also for display and entertainment (whatever their provenance), Ashby is arguably part of that colonialism.

The book rightfully identifies ‘land-clearing’ as one of the major drivers of extinction in Australia, as well as industrialisation:

It is truly extraordinary how quickly and extensively Europeans cleared the land for industry and farming. This continues today as weak conservation laws make it extremely difficult for legal challenges to enforce any protections that might benefit threatened species.

True. And there’s a prevalent critique in the book of the introduction of predatorial foxes and cats (which have killed and continue to kill indescribable numbers of Australian animals) as well as of the cane toad without a contiguous argument on the impact of mining. While the condemnation of Rio Tinto for its heinous destruction of Juukan Gorge sacred site is appropriate, it almost seems an afterthought.

As an aside, it is disturbing to consider that many who graduate from studies in environment and the natural sciences in Australia end up directly or indirectly serving mining or pastoral interests, ‘saving’ and ‘monitoring’ animals to allow these enterprises to continue the occupation, theft, and annihilation of scared lands. Mining companies manipulate science to their own ends. Indeed, science is colonialism in such contexts. At the moment, a classic example is ‘green metal’ propaganda—such as the argument put out by Chalice mining about Julimar forest in Western Australia—that claims mining can benefit the climate more than a forest ecosystem. As a result, a forest in which endangered chuditch have been released to help with their survival could be destroyed in order to extract ‘green metals’ to ‘combat’ the climate crisis.

Going back to the issue of the introduced cane toad and its destruction of ecologies, I have strong ethical concerns over the method Ashby cites of discouraging monitor lizards from eating the poisonous cane toads. This section highlights in fact Ashby’s hypocrisy with regard to the wellbeing of life. He writes:

The process involved bisecting the toads at the waist, skinning their legs (which is surprisingly easy — it mostly comes off like a pair of leggings, although getting a grip on the greasy, elastic skin and a deft, hard, snapping yank) and mincing the appropriate bits to a specific ratio.

A form of pleasure seems to arise from the act of description which in itself enacts a kind of vengeance against the iniquities of the cane toad, and seems to be evidence of disdain for life itself. Yes, cane toads are a major issue, but this is repellently gleeful.

I have spent days since reading this popular nature-science book—with its annoyingly jokey hail-fellow-well-met tone, tempered with moments of deep seriousness—quoting facts about Australian mammals I didn’t know. I spend a lot of my life observing animals (without trapping them), and I acquired new ways of seeing through reading this work. There is much to admire in Ashby’s thoroughness, love of various species, and obvious care for threatened ecologies. He also references the many contradictions of colonial disdain towards Indigenous peoples while ‘settlers’ on the ‘frontier’ did much the same thing—for example, hunting kangaroos for food. Only after establishing their military dominance, did the invaders pursue kangaroos more specifically for sport and leisure as part of a colonial expansionism to intrude yet further into Indigenous country.

But this is really a personal journey sold as ecology. It is also an instruction manual on how to read Australia from the outside. It ultimately provides a justification of the human position regarding non-human life: for example, stating that kangaroos would be better to farm than sheep or cows (they produce less methane), or that the chemistry of body fluids (eg platypus toxin) might be useful to medicine, and so on. It’s actually, ironically, very anthropocentric and Eurocentric. Which begs the question: to whom is it speaking? The answer seems to be to the colonial European, and especially the ‘imperial’ British. That’s a contemporary state of being.

There is the amazing line towards the end of the book:

It’s also interesting to note that other eighteenth-century writers used the Americas’ complement of dangerous snakes and invertebrates as evidence of its degeneracy, as I suggest people do subconsciously regarding Australia today.

Really? There’s plenty you can say about the ongoing colonialism, exploitations, and bigotries in Australia, but ‘degeneracy’? This is a book telling the British they should cease to be colonial. And ‘they’ should! One and all.


Image: a detail from the cover of the Harper Collins edition of Platypus Matters

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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John Kinsella’s new work includes the story collection Pushing Back (Transit Lounge, 2021), Saussure's Kaleidoscope Graphology Drawing-Poems (Five Islands Press/Apothecary Archive, 2021) and The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume 1 (UWAP, 2022).

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