Penelope, The Platypus Who Faked a Pregnancy And Fooled The Zoo

Jul 5, 2023 1 comments

In 1947, there were only two platypuses in America—Penelope and Cecil. They were brought to New York’s Bronx Zoo all the way from Australia where the mammals are endemic to. But here’s the thing—platypuses are not quite mammals. Although their blood is warm and they have mammal-like fur, they lay eggs like reptiles. The blind, hairless hatchlings then nurse by licking milk that the mother secrete out of pores in the skin. Only after about four months do the young emerge from the burrow.

A wild platypus in a creek in Tasmania, Australia. Photo credit: Klaus/Flickr

Very few people have seen platypuses breed. Even in their native Australia, only one platypus couple (Jack and Jill) have bred in captivity, and they produced only one offspring. The Bronx curators were determined to learn all they could by making Penelope and Cecil mate.

The zoo built a lavish platypusary for them to live, where each had its own little swimming pool and private burrows. They slept throughout the day, with an hour’s break for visitors. At night, they came out to eat dinner, where each consumed about 25 to 35 live crayfish, 200 to 300 worms, one frog, several scrambled eggs, and mud.

With some encouragement from the curators, Cecil began to court Penelope, crawling into her enclosure whenever he had the chance. But Penelope was not interested. Cecil would grab Penelope’s flat tail in his duckbilled, toothless mouth, and hold on while Penelope dragged him around the pool in slow circles. At times Cecil would let go and roll over and over in the water.

Penelope definitely did not like Cecil. One time, the zookeepers placed Cecil in Penelope's half of the platypusary. As soon as she saw him, she dashed into the water, rolling over and over, and scratched furiously with all of her 20 sharp claws. Penelope’s revulsion to Cecil and the curators' earnest desire to make the platypuses mate even made the news, with the Time reporting that Penelope “was one of those saucy females who like to keep a male on a string.”

The next year, during breeding season, the zookeepers tried again. This time, Penelope was more receptive of Cecil’s moves, and the two platypuses seemed to get along nicely. When the curators provided her with eucalyptus leaves, Penelope took them into the burrow. Since wild platypuses make their breeding nests out of just such leaves, the curators grew hopeful.

A few weeks later, Penelope retreated to her burrow and remained there for six days. When she emerged, she ate an enormous meal and went back to her retreat. The zookeepers were convinced Penelope was pregnant and ready to lay eggs. Penelope began eating larger and larger quantities of worms and larvae. All the signs pointed to platypus eggs, perhaps even hairless platypus infants wriggling in the nest.

For the next sixteen weeks, the curators waited in patience as the young platypuses passed through the nursing stage. Then the weather turned for the worse unexpectedly and zoo officials feared that the cold might hurt the babies. They decided that they should wait no longer. With small trowels and under the presence of some fifty newspaper reporters and photographers, they dug into the dirt towards Penelope’s lair. After several hours of digging, they found a network of burrows but no leafy nest. There were no platykittens. Only Penelope.

The zookeepers had been befooled by a platypus. “She's a faker,” one of them said. Officials accused her of posing as an expectant mother just to lead a life of luxury, on double rations. “No more of that for her,” they said.

Cecil continued to woo Penelope for four more years, until one July night in 1957, Penelope slithered under the wire-mesh roof of her enclosure and escaped. Zoo officials searched the nearby waters for nearly two weeks, but Penelope was never found.

Cecil appeared affected by her disappearance. He spent considerable time scratching his head, an activity he had never done before. He lost weight and died one day after the search for Penelope was called off.

After the disappearance of Penelope and the death of Cecil, the Bronx Zoo brought three more platypuses from Australia. All three died within the first year. It wasn’t until 2019, when the United States go another platypus when a pair arrived at the San Diego Zoo. They are the only platypuses on display outside of Australia.

# End of the Affair, Time
# Science: Penelope's Secret, Time
# Sad news from Penelope Platypus, The Courier-Mail


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