In this time of unprecedented social strife and tribalism, there is at least one thing that I think we can all agree on: We don’t spend nearly enough time celebrating the wonder of the duck-billed platypus. Am I right? The platypus is like a unicorn that actually exists—but SO much cooler. Apparently assembled on the Sixth Day of Creation from a box of leftover parts found in the corner of the Animal Assembly Lab, the platypus ended up with an inverse mullet: a duck face and a beaver butt, party in front but all business in back.
As if that weren’t enough—and why should it be?—platy has a trick that only one other animal can perform. As any third-grader could tell you, one of the defining characteristics of mammals is that their young are born “alive and well.” But for the platypus, that’s more of a guideline than a rule, so it lays eggs and dares the Mammalian Central Committee to do something about it. Which so far, it hasn’t.
But wait. There’s more! If I remember correctly from the report I wrote at Mariposa Elementary, the male platypus has a didn’t-see-it-coming, extra-stupendous superpower. On his hind webbed foot (it has webbed feet!) he’s got a secret, poisonous spur that he’s more than happy to unleash on predators and other neighborhood bullies. Somewhere in the Outback there’s a wombat with a swollen, lacerated snout trying to explain it all to the skeptical wallabies and bandicoots at the watering hole: “Fellas, I’m not kidding. Don’t mess with that guy. You make one harmless joke about his mother and he’ll cut you. I’m serious.”
You’ve probably encountered a platypus or two yourself recently. You know the type: looks funny, talks funny, kinda weird. For all you can tell, the two of you have just about nothing in common. You are a bipedal carnivore from Van Nuys and he’s a semi-aquatic crayfish-slurping Australian. You pray five times a day and he doesn’t so much as go to church. So different. These are the kinds of creatures we typically avoid as we stick to watering holes we find more suited to our own kind. It’s safer. More comfortable. And, in this time of unprecedented social strife and tribalism, increasingly problematic.
Who can doubt that our toxic divisiveness really comes down to a discomfort with otherness? We can put up with a lot, but different is sometimes just too much. Which is why with so little provocation we’re name-calling again (“Duckface!” “Beaverbutt!”), and before you know it the spurs come out and we all start looking and feeling like swollen, lacerated wombats.
I’m pretty sure that we would all be better off getting to know those who don’t look like us, talk like us, think or pray or even give birth like us. Sometimes we can get so caught up in trying to establish who is stronger, faster, richer, “righter” that we miss out on the contest to be friendlier. Imagine what would happen if we searched first for common ground from which we can work on something together, our various idiosyncrasies notwithstanding. What would that be like?
I would love to find out. But until then, let’s all agree on at least this much: That the platypus, with the bill, the tail, the egg trick, the venomous claw—not to mention the charming foreign accent—is the total package, animal magnificence cobbled together from a bunch of random whatnot. Other than that one wombat, who could possibly disagree?
And just like that, we’re standing on common ground. It may not be much, but it’s a start. Do that a few dozen times more and we may be onto something. It shouldn’t be that hard, especially considering that, deep down, we’re all just a bunch of bandicoots and wallabies, trying to make the best of things in and around the same swampy pond.
February P.S.: I just found this old Far Side cartoon. Gary Larson just gets me.