Of Marsupials and Men by Alistair Paton

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Imagine a nineteenth-century artist whose pet wombat slept on his dinner table or a twentieth-century scientist tasked with a top-secret mission to deliver a platypus to Winston Churchill at the height of World War II. Unusual, fascinating, inspiring and mostly unknown anecdotes from the story of the Australian bush fill much of Paton’s book.

The book’s structure is quite simple: a chapter on the acclimatisation movement, the money to be made from selling exotic animals, a huge chapter on birds, a segment on snakes, what is described as one of nature’s nervous mistakes, a chapter on Tasmanians, a final chapter on native animals in the media, and an epilogue. When viewed at from this perspective, the book becomes an anecdotal record, interesting though these records may be.

The early chapter is a case in point. It deals with a point of view that God created nature as a painting of his divine will and the job of the naturalist was to interpret his will as expressed in plants and animals. Creatures that didn’t fit the established worldview were morally suspect. Sir Henry Barkly’s support of releasing monkeys into the forests of greater Melbourne for the amusement of Melburnians and Sir Charles Darling’s idea that he source boa constrictors to provide an amusing distraction for hard-working city folk received earnest consideration. Paton goes on to inform his readers of one Edward Wilson who, declaiming South Australia’s inferiority in terms of native plants and animals, set out to establish acclimatisation societies in various parts of the land. “The fundamental belief underlying acclimatisation was that all animals were created by God for the use of mankind. It was not only man’s duty to exploit them – it would be downright rude not to” (17).

Paton’s second chapter begins with a puzzle: how do you get a koala to the other side of the world? The chapter then proceeds to report on the attempts to transport native animals to other localities and identifies the problems facing people attempting to do so. This discussion leads into a huge discussion on transporting birds, in which the well-known name of John Gould figures prominently.

The content of each succeeding chapter varies little. This is a book written for historians (or perhaps, scientists). Each chapter varies little from its neighbour. The point of view of significant ‘authorities’ is examined, their actions reported, praise or chastisement is issued, and the results of their actions reported. When reading this booklet, I wondered if it was meant to be a set of notes of lessons turned literary. It seemed to exist for no other purpose than to transmit knowledge – an understanding of history, animal and human habits, and the results of some set of actions.

Look forward in your reading of Paton’s book and you’ll reach a chapter that makes all the reading of the preliminary chapters worthwhile. This is the chapter called “Epilogue: Not the End”. It is a summation of at least some of the exciting research that is being conducted by authoritative figures in various parts of the world. It is such a vital chapter that its place might be better served at the beginning of the book. It seems lost at the end.

A fascinating book especially for those who ever wondered.

Of Marsupials and Men


By Alistair Paton

Black Inc

ISBN: 978 176064 364 5

$32.99; 304 pp

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