Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fleay, David Howells (1907–1993)

by Libby Connors

This article was published online in 2017

David Howells Fleay (1907–1993), zoologist, naturalist, and conservationist, was born on 6 January 1907 at Ballarat, Victoria, eldest of the three children of Victorian-born parents William Henry (Harry) Fleay, pharmacist, and his wife Maude Edith Victoria, née Glover (1869–1965). David’s mother was a talented artist who, before her marriage, had been tutored by Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery of Victoria’s school of drawing. When David was eighteen months old he contracted polio but, with his mother’s nursing, suffered only slight damage to the muscles of his left side. The close bond forged between mother and son would remain until her death.

The family moved, probably in 1912, to a house on a half-acre (0.2 ha) block. There, David was able to accumulate a miniature zoo, which included a powerful owl. He attended Pleasant Street and Macarthur Street State schools and gained his secondary education at Ballarat Church of England Grammar School (1921–23). His lifelong crusade for the protection of native wildlife began with a successful campaign against the hunting of waterbirds on Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree. On turning sixteen he was indentured to his father to learn pharmacy part time. By 1926 his father had recognised that he had no interest in the profession. That year the grammar school’s headmaster, E. V. Butler, appointed him as a junior master with time off to study at Ballarat Teachers’ College. At the school he gathered a group of enthusiastic students into a field naturalists’ club, ran field trips, and established an animal sanctuary.

In 1927 Fleay began full-time study at the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1932; DipEd, 1933) and Melbourne Teachers’ College. Six feet 1 inches (187 cm) tall and physically strong, he was a keen athlete, proficient in shot-put. At university he met a New Zealander and fellow student, Mary Sigrid Collie (BSc, 1931), who accompanied him on weekend trips observing and collecting wildlife. They were married on 23 December 1931 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Erskineville, Sydney.

Fleay taught in Melbourne at Toorak Central State School in 1933. That year he applied for the position of director of the Tasmanian Museum, with the express purpose of studying the endangered thylacine and its life history. He was not selected but his visit to Hobart for an interview enabled him to photograph the thylacine in the city’s zoo. His excellent portraits and movie footage have been continually reproduced, often without acknowledgement.

In 1934 Fleay won appointment as curator of a new Australian section of the Melbourne Zoological Gardens. His part of the zoo proved very popular and he initiated night tours that acknowledged the nocturnal nature of much native fauna. The media recognised the originality of his work: he commenced radio broadcasts in 1935 and was also given film to record events at the zoo for newsreel companies. In the Depression, however, his practice of providing his animal charges with the food they ate in the wild was expensive. He clashed with the director, Hector Kendall, over the feeding and general care of the animals and the zoo’s board forced him to resign in August 1937.

Appointed director of the Sir Colin MacKenzie Sanctuary at Badger Creek, Healesville, in November, Fleay developed the reserve with an array of native fauna in natural settings. He was able to undertake scientific research, even while his successful caring for wildlife created an attraction that drew crowds of tourists. His proficiency in Australian zoology gained international recognition, especially in 1943 when he became the first person to breed the platypus in captivity. This success reinvigorated his hope of rescuing the Tasmanian thylacine. In the summer of 1945–46 he undertook an expedition to the State’s south-west, but was bitterly disappointed to find only bits of fur and footprints of one of the animals.

Film crews and zoos in the country and overseas turned to Fleay for assistance with the management and handling of Australian fauna. In 1947 the sanctuary granted him four months leave to deliver three platypuses to the New York Zoological Society’s Bronx Zoo. He gave many talks and addresses as he and Sigrid travelled across the United States of America, while also continuing his natural history collecting. Again finding himself in conflict with a management committee more interested in revenue from tourism than in scientific research and the care of wildlife, he was dismissed on his return. He lived by writing about nature until, following a government inquiry into the sanctuary, its committee re-employed him in 1949 as natural history consultant and later as research officer.

In 1951 Fleay purchased a house and land overlooking the Tallebudgera Creek estuary at West Burleigh on Queensland’s Gold Coast, in order to continue, independently, his collecting and scientific study of native birds, reptiles, and mammals. He moved his family and personal wildlife collection there in February 1952. Over the next thirty years he would manage Fleay’s Fauna Reserve—eventually covering 64.5 acres (26.1 ha)—on naturalist principles, leading to many firsts in captive breeding, including the powerful owl and the wedge-tailed eagle.

Fleay’s regular articles on nature in the Brisbane Courier-Mail and his production of snake venom for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory’s antivenene program supplemented his income in the difficult founding days until the reserve became established as a major tourist attraction. His bravery in milking snakes that had caused human fatalities was publicly acclaimed and his efforts helped develop antivenene for several species, including the taipan.

The reserve drew a new generation of international scientists, celebrities, and film crews in the 1950s and 1960s. A long interval between successes in breeding platypuses caused him to investigate the prevalence of pesticides in the natural feed he had been providing his animals, leading him to publicly campaign against dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and other new chemical pesticides. He also fought repeated threats to his reserve from development in the 1960s and 1970s that included plans to build a freeway through it and to modify Tallebudgera Creek for a canal residential estate. In 1962 he was a founder of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. Sigrid Fleay became president of the society’s biggest branch, the Gold Coast, which led the way in successful battles against sand-mining and canal developments, and against oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef.

As the Fleays neared retirement, they wanted to ensure that their land remained a natural habitat and was preserved as a centre for the study of Australian wildlife. After protracted negotiations, the State government acquired the property in portions, for nominal amounts, between 1982 and 1985. The main area of 8.1 ha, where the animals were enclosed, would be renamed the David Fleay Wildlife Park in 1997; the remaining land eventually became Tallebudgera Creek Conservation Park.

Numerous awards and distinctions were bestowed on Fleay. He was elected as a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London (1945) and the New York Zoological Society (1947), a fellow of the Explorers Club of New York (1979), an honorary member of the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria (1945), and an honorary associate of the Queensland Museum (1978). He was appointed MBE (1960) and AM (1980). The University of Queensland conferred an honorary doctorate of science on him in 1984. Five years later he was awarded the freedom of the city of the Gold Coast. The Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle Aquila audax fleayi and the Fleay's barred frog Mixophyes fleayi were named for him.

A rare figure in the Australian environment movement, Fleay managed to make the transition from the first wave to the modern movement that mobilised using new mass-media techniques in the 1960s. In his youth and early adulthood he absorbed the ideals of the field naturalist tradition that campaigned for the protection of native animals and promoted a love and appreciation of Australian flora and fauna. The renowned nature writer Donald Macdonald had mentored him in these early days. Fleay’s newspaper contributions to, among others, the Ballarat Courier, the Argus, and later the Courier-Mail helped build the fledgling Australian second wave. His links with the international zoological community made him open to fresh ideas and ways of reaching audiences. As well as his newspaper columns, he contributed scientific papers and popular articles to Australian and international journals. He wrote eight books, including multi-editions of We Breed the Platypus (1944), Living with Animals (1960), and Nightwatchmen of Bush and Plain (1968).

Fleay was a charismatic man who won the loyalty of volunteers and workers. He dressed daily in business shirt, tie, and hat. His obsession with animals made him an excellent zoologist but it placed immense strains on his family. The unrelenting effort of keeping the reserve open nearly every day of the year and tending to the needs of visitors took a toll on his wife, who suffered depression and a nervous breakdown. Despite these challenges, she was extremely proud of her husband and his achievements, and loyal to him and his vision. She died in 1987. On 3 October that year at Burleigh Heads he married Catherine Sylvia Arnold. He died at West Burleigh in his home adjoining the reserve on 7 August 1993 and, following an Anglican service, was cremated. His wife survived him, as did the two sons and one of the two daughters of his first marriage. The collection of his daughter, Rosemary Fleay-Thomson, includes numerous photographs of him, together with his portrait as a twelve-year-old, painted by his mother.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Fleay, Stephen J. ‘Living [Wildlife] History.’ Wildlife Australia 49, no. 3 (Spring 2012): 36–37
  • Fleay-Thomson, Rosemary. Animals First: The Story of Pioneer Australian Conservationist & Zoologist Dr David Fleay. Natural Bridge, via Nerang, Qld: Petaurus Publishing, 2007
  • Fleay-Thomson, Rosemary, comp. David Fleay’s World of Wedge-tails: The Writings of David Fleay on the Wedge-tailed Eagle. Natural Bridge, via Nerang, Qld: Petaurus Publishing, 2002
  • Hetherington, John. Uncommon Men. Melbourne: Cheshire, 1965
  • Laker, Linda. ‘David Fleay: Australian Naturalist and Educator.’ Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 17, issue 11 (August 1998): 515–524

Citation details

Libby Connors, 'Fleay, David Howells (1907–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fleay-david-howells-18625/text30259, published online 2017, accessed online 10 December 2018.

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