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Nature, culture and history

History

Photograph of a Tasmanian tiger from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Photograph of a Tasmanian tiger from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Photograph from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Photograph from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Fleays Fauna Reserve circa 1950s. Photograph from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Fleays Fauna Reserve circa 1950s. Photograph from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Baby platypus being shown to school children. Photograph from the David Fleay Natural history collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Baby platypus being shown to school children. Photograph from the David Fleay Natural history collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Milking venom from a snake. Photograph from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

Milking venom from a snake. Photograph from the David Fleay Natural History Collection. Photo: David Fleay Trustees.

The David Fleay Story:

Developing a passion for wildlife (1907 to 1951)

Born in Ballarat on 6 January 1907, David Howells Fleay established an interest in the Australian bush and its wildlife at an early age. This passion he inherited from his mother—Maude Glover Fleay—who studied painting under Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery in Melbourne and specialised in painting landscapes and scientifically-accurate flora and fauna. Educated at Pleasant Street State School and Ballarat Grammar School, David's first job (at his father's insistence) was in his father's pharmacy. His father, William Henry Fleay, disapproved of his son's interest in Australian wildlife. Soon after, illness caused his father's retirement and David left the business.

He accepted a teaching position at Ballarat Church of England Grammar School and, in 1927, moved to Melbourne where he taught while studying for a Bachelor of Science degree and Diploma of Education at Melbourne University.

Fleay later claimed that he had been specially chosen and trained to fill the shoes of noted nature study pioneer, David J A Leach. At Melbourne University he met fellow science student, Mary Sigrid Collie, and they married in 1931—the year David Fleay graduated in Zoology, Botany and Education.

Between 1927 and 1931 Fleay taught at State primary and secondary schools. He continued his private study of native animals and in 1933 photographed and filmed the last living Tasmanian tiger, also known as the thylacine, (see photo) in the Hobart Zoo. He was bitten on the bottom in the process and carried the scar proudly throughout his life.

On failing to capture thylacines on a subsequent expedition, he sought to direct a breeding program on captive thylacines to save them from extinction. The Tasmanian authorities did not approve the program and his advice went unheeded. We now know that the last definite sighting in the wild of a Tasmanian tiger was in 1930. Even if the captive breeding program had been approved, it is unlikely that any animals would have been available. Had the Tasmanian tiger survived for another 20 years, Fleay's expertise in captive breeding could well have been enough to save it from extinction.

By 1934 his reputation as a 'wildlife man' was sufficiently established for Fleay to be chosen to design and direct a new Australian section at the Melbourne Zoo as part of Melbourne's centenary celebrations. He worked there for three years, during which time he was able to achieve some significant scientific 'firsts', such as the first captive breeding of emus, Australian brush-turkeys, several birds of prey, the tawny frogmouth and a variety of marsupials, including the koala.

He constructed his first platypusary (home for platypuses) and commenced his research on the breeding habits of the platypus. He initiated his first radio nature talks on Melbourne's radio station 3AR in 1937, continuing his campaign and natural desire to educate the community about Australia's native fauna. However, his time at the Melbourne Zoo was soured by disagreements with management on matters of principle. Reflecting his naturalist's viewpoint rather than traditional zoologists' thinking, he insisted that native birds and animals should be fed what they would eat in the wild and refused to feed insect-eating frogmouths horse meat. He was dismissed over this issue in 1937.

This same year, David Fleay was appointed the first paid Director of the wildlife sanctuary at Healesville (about 51 km north-east of Melbourne) with his directive being to develop the sanctuary on 78 acres of temperate rainforest on Badger Creek. His collection included quolls, Tasmanian devils, dingoes and various birds of prey.
Controversially, he introduced 95 large tiger snakes to the sanctuary, which were displayed on an island and milked for antivenene purposes. Fleay recommenced his breeding and conservation programs in earnest, achieving worldwide recognition.
His greatest achievement at Healesville was breeding the first platypus in captivity in a new platypusary he designed and built himself. On 5 November 1943, 'Corrie' the platypus was born. Although other scientists and sanctuaries have tried to breed platypus in captivity, no-one other than David Fleay had successfully bred and reared a platypus until 1999 when Healesville Sanctuary had success again, some 55 years later.

Fleay's first published book, 'We Breed the Platypus', published in 1944, commemorated this event (a 50th anniversary edition was published in 1994). His writings at Healesville included his edited nature notes in The Argus and The Australasian (a continuation of the contributions he made to these and other publications from the age of 16). He went on to publish 'Observations on the Breeding of the Platypus in Captivity' and then 'Gliders of the Gum Trees' in 1947.
He received public acclaim during this period by receiving the Australian Natural History Medallion in 1941 and by his election as a Corresponding Member of the Zoological Society of London in 1945 and Corresponding Member (Life) of the New York Zoological Society in 1947.

In 1947 David and Sigrid Fleay travelled with platypuses 'Cecil', 'Penelope' and 'Betty' to New York's Bronx Zoo, arriving on 25 April. His platypuses were accommodated in a new platypusary at the zoo, built to Fleay's specifications.

During his stay in the USA he inspected the modern methods of housing and feeding of animals at the New York Zoological Park, Staten Island Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, National Zoological Park (Washington), Brookfield Park Zoo (Illinois), Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago), San Diego Zoological Park and Golden Gate Zoo (San Francisco). He returned from America with new ideas he implemented in Australia.

David Fleay returned to Healesville on 13 October 1947. Six months later, a discontented board dismissed him for the purported unauthorised donation of other sanctuary animals to the Americans. While the accusation was not true, it did not mitigate the board's hostility toward Fleay. After much public outcry and a reshuffling of the board members, Fleay continued in a lesser role at Healesville as a consultant.
Fleay continued to maintain his private native fauna collection until 1951 when the Victorian Government banned private individuals from asking for and accepting token admission fees from members of the public wishing to view their personal native fauna collections. This legislation prompted Fleay to find a more suitable location, which would enable him to carry out his research into the life and habits of native birds, mammals and reptiles, and he ultimately moved north to Queensland.

The move to Fleays (1951 to 1982)

In late 1951, after investigating around Brisbane and South East Queensland, David Fleay selected the Tallebudgera estuary as a suitable site for a fauna reserve. The attraction of the site was, according to Fleay, the flood-free forested slopes and gullies, a splendid run-off, koala fodder gums with koalas in residence, and the presence of fish, mammals and birds.

Well-preserved Aboriginal relics, which indicated a historical background, were another attraction. The area at the time was used by small crops farmers who supplied the Victorian market in winter. The site preferred by Fleay comprised three properties owned by three separate individuals. Moreover, the land was not for sale and Fleay did not have sufficient capital to purchase it.

Determination and persistence paid off and Fleay steadily acquired the land in the names of D H and M S Fleay. He acquired Portion 20A in May 1952.

In July 1952 he purchased Portion 23A in Mary Sigrid Fleay's name. Portion 18A was bought in October 1952. Further land acquisitions occurred in June 1958 with the purchase of Portion 19A. The last portion bought in 1965 became an additional car park.

Fleay's West Burleigh sanctuary was to be a place of research and education and David Fleay vehemently objected to descriptions of his sanctuary as a zoo.

He explained, 'It's a place where the animals are kept in conditions as close as possible to the natural environment, where they can breed freely and can be studied. We've never had great numbers of birds in aviaries. That's wrong. We're not in the job of sacrificing animals for the sake of showing them and I don't have a lot of time for many modern zoos'.

Platypuses, snakes, dingoes, plain turkeys (also known as Australian bustards), ospreys, crocodiles and alligators lived at the sanctuary in 'benevolent captivity', while others such as the bandicoots, flying foxes, white-bellied sea-eagles, wallabies and koalas were at liberty to come and go as they pleased.

People could walk among the animals, such as the macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), which were enclosed in large walk-through enclosures with swing-weighted gates—a design Fleay introduced at Healesville.

Here David Fleay could manage the sanctuary in accordance with his established naturalist's principles, following on from his work at Healesville, and not be accountable to a dissenting committee.

The establishment of a sanctuary for native animals did not reflect contemporary society's views, which largely regarded native animals as pests. In later life David Fleay told a story of meeting the local pastor when he moved to West Burleigh, who proudly indicated the spot where he had shot a sea-eagle.

According to Rosemary Thomson, the animal parks nearby were Bill Maughan's collection of Australian animals at Coolangatta, Jack Evans' porpoise pool at Tweed Heads (later moved to Sea World on The Spit) and Alex Griffiths' Currumbin Bird Sanctuary. These places were fundamentally different, as they were primarily tourist attractions rather than places for scientific research—a fundamental rationale behind the establishment of Fleays Fauna Reserve.

David was also ahead of his time in his enlightened attitude towards the Gold Coast's Kombumerri Aboriginal people, respecting that 'they were here for many thousands of years before us. We've got a very strong obligation to do the right thing by them'.

As a man who acted in accordance with his principles, in the 1930s David Fleay had given his entire savings of £1000 to an impoverished Aboriginal community outside Cunnamulla in Western Queensland. At West Burleigh he preserved the midden belonging to the Kombumerri people with whom he maintained good relations.

Fleays Fauna Reserve after 1982

To ensure that the Fleays' sanctuary could survive intact, David and Sigrid Fleay decided to sell the land to the Queensland Government for a nominal amount. In doing so the Fleays hoped that the land would be protected as a natural Australian habitat, developed as a centre for even wider study of Australian native animals based on the principles established by David Fleay, and provide a setting and interest for Mr and Mrs Fleay in which they could see their lifetime's work come to fruition.

In 1982 a large portion of the land owned by David and Sigrid Fleay (37 acres) was sold to the Queensland Government. This became a conservation park. The following year the main area of the Fauna Reserve where the animals were enclosed (20 acres) was also sold to the Government. The remainder of the site (7.5 acres) was transferred in 1985. This is the current public car park.

Under the terms of the handover David and Sigrid Fleay continued to live at the sanctuary. David Fleay continued his research into owls, hawks and eagles, marsupials, snake venom and the Prince Edward lyrebird. He continued to advise the then Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service officers.

David Fleay continued to work at Fleays Fauna Reserve and to keep animals, such as kangaroos, emus, cassowaries and his Galapagos tortoise, largely in their original enclosures. In 1983, the park closed for five years for redevelopment and reopened in 1988.

David Fleay died on 7 August 1993. His death was lamented by many. The regard in which he was held by his professional colleagues and the community is partly illustrated by the awards and honours bestowed upon him during his lifetime. However, personal tributes go further to revealing David Fleay's personality and tangible contribution to society.

Many, such as Steve van Dyk of the Queensland Museum, spoke of the influence Fleay had on him through his lyrical and whimsical style of writing, which Steve himself has tried to adopt. John Butler, a former student of David Fleay at Ballarat Grammar School, found Fleay adept at passing on the wonder and excitement he felt for his subject.

As journalist Don Marshall wrote of David Fleay in 1981: 'Few people could wear more than but a few hats from the list of zoologist, botanist, teacher, naturalist, bushman, herpetologist, handyman, conservationist, falconer, author, columnist, photographer, lobbyist, public relations officer and plain hard worker—David Fleay wears them all with distinction'.

In October 1995, 7.45 ha of the site was gazetted as 'Fleays Wildlife Park Conservation Park' under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992 and is operated by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service for the people of Queensland. In 1997 the fauna reserve was renamed 'David Fleay Wildlife Park' to re-enforce the link between the park and the man—David Fleay.

Although David Fleay is no longer with us, his legacy lives on at the park through dedicated rangers and volunteers who continue with groundbreaking research, breeding and education programs that David Fleay inspired.

Running of Fleays Fauna Reserve

Sigrid Fleay was an avid gardener and established a beautiful garden of tiger lilies, roses and more around the Fleay's house. The family also planted palm trees (as the emus ate the nuts) and bananas and pawpaws for family and animal consumption. Bamboo was planted as a bird shelter and a casuarina grove was planted for the emus. The grove was later replaced by rainforest species as the area was very damp.

The sanctuary survived principally through the hard work of David Fleay and his family, and at times with assistance from the local community. The family grew beans to help supplement the sanctuary's income and a welcome litter of eight pug dogs was once sold for 13 guineas each.

The family tended the animals, and Sigrid Fleay provided teas on the verandah of the house to visitors and also sold sweets.

The animals' and visitors' needs came first. For example, the Fleay family did not have a toilet or hand basin inside the house during the first ten years, but shared the outhouse with the public.

David Fleay's advance on one of his books paid for a suite of toilets at the sanctuary—for the visitors! Most days a coach load of tourists would arrive and would be shown around and given refreshments. The sanctuary was open seven days a week, even Christmas Day, and only closed on Good Friday.

David Fleay later claimed that the sanctuary was built from blood, sweat and tears, without governmental financial assistance. The main sources of revenue were the visitors' entry fees and income from Fleay's writing.

Volunteer labour and donations were vital to the sanctuary's survival. The original platypusary was dug out by young volunteers from the Queensland Museum. Local children were usually on hand to clean and fill water dishes and clean cages.

The animals were fed partly from donations from local bakers and butchers and ruined food (if an industrial fridge on the coast broke down). Local residents donated dead animals to feed the owls. If the beast was no longer fresh it was given to the goannas.

Mice and rats were collected frequently from the McKerras Research Institute behind the hospital. Worms had to be collected fresh each day for the platypuses. Friday nights were eel hunting nights and pigeons and flying foxes were also killed to provide food for the owls, snakes and crocodiles.

As well as donations of food being brought to the sanctuary, hundreds of injured or sick animals were brought to Fleays over the years and the place became an animal refuge. Animals sent from as far away as New Guinea and Central Queensland were accommodated at the sanctuary. At its peak the sanctuary cared for 450 animals. Those that lived were kept for research or breeding. Native animals, when recovered, were released into the wild. Deceased animals were fed to the survivors.

David Fleay could usually be seen around the sanctuary in his trademark hat, tie and braces, tending and studying his animals, but always prepared to answer questions and educate visitors.

Around 3.30 pm every day, David Fleay or a staff or family member conducted a public feeding session of the platypus. The tank was filled with water and the sheets of corrugated iron covering the platypus hideout were removed for a public showing. 'Teddy' and 'Big Bill', the resident platypuses for many years, would then emerge from one of the wooden tunnels for a feed. For 17 years in Victoria and for at least 29 years at Burleigh, the platypuses were displayed in a show and question time.

David Fleay's achievements

Fleay's more formal educative role continued in Queensland and he was appointed as a Courier Mail columnist, a position he held until at least 1988. He also continued to publish: 'Talking of Animals' in 1956 (reprinted in 1960), 'Living with Animals' in 1960 (reprinted in 1961), 'Nightwatchmen of Bush and Plain' in 1968 (reprinted in 1979), 'Paradoxical Platypus' in 1980 and 'Looking at Animals' in 1981. His photographs were featured in E Byrne's 'The Unique Animals of Australia', published in 1961.

Fleay's writing was based on his research and life's work at West Burleigh where he established Fleays Fauna Reserve. The importance of David Fleay's writing should not be understated. It was the response to his views in favour of wildlife conservation in his Courier Mail column that prompted the formation of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in 1962.

He also wrote innumerable scientific papers for The Victorian Naturalist, Emu (the journal of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union), The Australian Zoologist, Walkabout and Wild Life, among others. His ability to convey his knowledge and passion for his subjects has been commented on by many.

Dr Michael Archer, former Curator of Mammals at the Queensland Museum and former Director of the Australian Museum, in his foreword to Paradoxical Platypus wrote: 'Mr Fleay is unique. Absolutely no-one else can manage to take an extraordinarily complex matter like a platypus "in going order" and describe it in a way equally fascinating to school child and professional zoologist alike'.

His achievements at Fleays Fauna Reserve were numerous. In 1955 he bred the first mulgara in captivity, followed in 1958 by the breeding of another marsupial carnivore—the tiny planigale.

In 1958 he successfully delivered a further three platypuses to New York's Bronx Zoo and later that year was able to construct a new and improved platypusary at West Burleigh with a small grant awarded to him by the New York Zoological Society. In 1960 he bred the first taipan in captivity.

Possibly his best known successes at Fleays Fauna Reserve were with owls and other birds of prey. He can claim the first known captive breeding of the powerful owl (1968), sooty owl (1969), grey goshawk (1971), mainland masked owl (1971), grass owl (1972), Pacific baza (1975) and the wedge-tailed eagle (1977). In 1988 Fleay successfully bred the yellow-bellied glider Petaurus australis after 60 years of attempting to do so—the first bred in captivity.

In 1970 David Fleay continued his attempts to breed platypuses in a platypusary which, although slightly modernised, was largely similar to that he built at Healesville 28 years previously. There was no similar success here, although in 1972 Fleay discovered a small dead baby (50 days old) at the entrance to the burrow. It was later found that its food contained traces of DDT, a chemical whose use he avidly campaigned against.

David Fleay continued to breed snakes and provided venom from death adders, brown snakes, king brown snakes and tiger snakes for the ongoing work of Dr C H Kellaway from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

In recognition of the quality and value of his research and breeding programs, Fleay was awarded an MBE in 1960, an AM and Advance Australia Award in 1980 and was appointed an Associate of the Queensland Museum in 1978. Much to his delight, in 1979 he was appointed a Fellow of the Explorers' Club in New York. Fleays accolades continued in 1984 when he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by the University of Queensland and appointed a Rotary Paul Harris Fellow.

David Fleay’s work with snakes was recognised by Sir Edward Hallstrom, for many years associated with Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo, who presented him with a baby boa constrictor for his seventieth birthday.

Another great honour was the naming of a newly-discovered giant barred-frog called Mixophyes fleayi in recognition of Fleay’s immense contribution to the knowledge of the breeding biology of Australian animals.

In explaining this decision, Dr Glen Ingram, Curator of Amphibians and Birds at the Queensland Museum, declared: 'It's not his scientific work. The man is a compulsive communicator. He has reached the minds and hearts of many generations of Australians'.

The Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle was also named after David Fleay, who was the first to regard the bird as a distinct island race. In 1954 the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle was recognised as a subspecies of the mainland form and carries the name Aquila audax fleayi.

Last updated
30 June 2016