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[Book Review] Platypus Matters by Jack Ashby

Review by A. M. Larks

What do you know about Australian animals? How many can you name? Do you only know the famous ones: kangaroos or koalas or platypuses? Do you think they’re dangerous or weird? Your answers are likely yes and yes, and therein lies the problem. Jack Ashby in Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals expertly traces the basis for these preconceptions on Australian fauna to colonial attitudes from the time Australia was “discovered.” Indeed, Ashby’s detailed analysis of historical documents is vital to the consideration of the origin of the information of our scientific details. Who made these observations? What was their purpose? And most importantly, what were their values? Good and bad, primitive and sophisticated, normal and weird are all words which imply a binary judgment on the subject. If an animal is primitive, it is not sophisticated and is therefore a lesser being, and likewise deserves less by definition. Ashby, in his extensive zoological career, has turned a common occurrence into a call to arms, and to Ashby, nothing more exemplifies this debate than the one between placentals and marsupials.

Platypuses take center stage in Platypus Matters as one of the most recognizable of the Australian marsupials. But Ashby lives by his own different-but-equal argument and makes sure to give equal attention to possums, wombats, echidnas, devils, kangaroos, quolls, dibblers, kowaris, and more. Each one of these animals is unique and interesting in its own right. Each is also threatened by habitat loss and invasive nonnative predators (cats and foxes), which began with the British colonization of Australia and continues to this day.

The crux of Ashby’s argument is that how we talk about things influences what we do. How we talk about things indicates how we feel. And if we think the weird kid is a strango, how likely are we going to step in and stop him from getting pushed around by the bully? And if years of scientific writings have taught you that placentals are superior and animals that grow in pouches is somehow wrong, how likely are you going to be to fight to save it them from extinction?

The extinction of the thylacine is the prime example of this PR problem. Touted as sheep killers (sheep are a nonnative and introduced species) and the subject of bounties and hunting parties, the thylacine is now extinct, the last living one having died in captivity in 1935. Ashby’s dystopian future of an Australia without wonderful unique marsupials is therefore not so much science fiction as it is science fact. Which is why Platypus Matters is a necessary text.

But while this book is necessary, it suffers from its own troubles in that the text lacks the focus needed to convey the simplicity and specificity of the message. Ashby is a very knowledgeable expert whose detailed recitation of animal factoids can be overwhelming for the general public. Usually, if a text is to be so detailed, it is often accompanied by diagrams and broken up by spacing and headings, which is not the case here.

There is also an inconsistency in the assumed knowledge of the audience and in the point of view. Concepts, people, places are mostly explained but not fully, leaving a feeling of incompleteness and a bit of confusion, and pronouns are switched from third to first to second within a matter of paragraphs.

The flaws of this text are unfortunate but should not deter the ecologically minded. This is a vital text with an essential message: Australia’s animals “are devalued by the way we talk about and represent them … and this is having a catastrophic impact that inevitably contributes to the extinction crisis.” As Ashby notes, the sad fact is that some of these animals only live in Australia, and when they disappear, even in part, the world functions differently as a result. So, just maybe if we change how we think, it will change how we talk, it will change what we do, and it will alter what we’ve done.

A. M. Larks’s writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the ZYZZYVA and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current assistant managing editor and blog editor, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal, the former fiction editor at Please See Me, and former blog editor at The Coachella Review. A. M. Larks earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside at Palm Desert, a JD, and a BA in English Literature.


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