Kodachrome view from the Fleay family house, including the reserve and Tallegbudgerra Creek.
Kodachrome view from the Fleay family house, including the reserve and Tallegbudgerra Creek.

Son of famed Coast naturalist gives insight into amazing animal adventures

GENERATIONS of kids have visited the David Fleay Wildlife Park at Tallebudgera, but only two grew up there: David and Sigrid Fleay's son Stephen and his sister, Rosemary.

Stephen, now retired and living in Portugal after a national and international career in TV and radio journalism, took time to look back on those days for Seniors News.

When Fleay's Fauna Reserve, as it was first known, began in 1952, he said, the entrance fee was two shillings for adults and sixpence for children.

"Rosemary, my sister, was working all week back then helping out, collecting entrance fees, cleaning cages and feeding the animals, birds and reptiles.

"One of my jobs (at 10) was to pick grass for the collection of guinea pigs."

Stephen recalls picking bearded lizards off trees on the way back from Burleigh Heads State School for the fauna reserve's collection.

"My father took a photograph of me covered with these critters, which was published in the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper," he said of becoming labelled "The Lizard King''.

 

In 1952 a young Stephen made his own discovery at the new Fleay's Fauna Reserve ... a giant earthworm, while out at work with the bulldozer driver.
In 1952 a young Stephen made his own discovery at the new Fleay's Fauna Reserve ... a giant earthworm, while out at work with the bulldozer driver.

 

Stephen was also often called on to do a "howling start-up" with the family of dingoes, resulting in a dingo chorus that "could be heard all the way to the town of West Burleigh", 2.2km away. He even made his own scientific discovery, a giant earthworm, as he rode along with the bulldozer driver "inspecting what subterranean creatures would be disturbed by the excavations" for the park's new carpark.

"My father was quite excited as he had never seen or known about this species," Stephen said.

By the time he made the move to Queensland, Stephen's father had already chalked up many feats, including in 1933 taking an iconic photo and film of Benjamin, the last captive thylacine in Tasmania.

At Melbourne Zoo, he started an Australian section and succeeded in the first captive breeding of emus and koalas as well as other birds and marsupials.

Most famously, in 1943 he bred the first platypus in captivity at Victoria's Healesville Sanctuary, where he was the first director from 1939-47 and consultant until 1951.

"This made international good news in the midst of the Second World War," Stephen said.

His father's first book in 1944, We Breed the Platypus, was "studied by a then young British teenage naturalist, David Attenborough".

"Sir David wrote to me here in Portugal stating how this book had been an influence on his early life with natural history," Stephen said.

 

A UNIQUE CHILDHOOD: Stephen Fleay with Vicky the dingo, starting up the dingo chorus at Fleay's Fauna Reserve.
A UNIQUE CHILDHOOD: Stephen Fleay with Vicky the dingo, starting up the dingo chorus at Fleay's Fauna Reserve.

 

With his father wanting to carry out his own natural history research, the family made the move north to what was then called Queensland's South Coast, not renamed the Gold Coast until 1958.

Stephen recalls how hard it was to leave their Victorian home, Piccaninny Cottage, set in bushland at Badger Creek, where they had their own private collection of animals, birds and reptiles, including Rosemary's pet, Keith the wombat.

He said one of the first Queensland properties the family considered was Paradise Island, "which was available for around £7000 - yes, the entire island!"

However, it was deemed unsuitable due to being too low-set, and eventually they were shown the 80-acre (32-hectare) Tallebudgera site, which had just been sold but which the purchasers were convinced to part with at a profit.

 

A very young Stephen with a koala back at Badger Creek, Victoria, circa 1945, before the family's move north.
A very young Stephen with a koala back at Badger Creek, Victoria, circa 1945, before the family's move north.

 

Stephen said the most complex part of the building process, including cages and gates, was the platypus enclosure, known as "The Platypussary". It had "a special pool and sleeping compartments for these delicate part-aquatic animals" to make the surrounds as close to nature as possible in a philosophy that was well ahead of its time.

David is quoted as saying: "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.''

It is noteworthy that no one other than David Fleay successfully bred and reared a platypus until Healesville Sanctuary again in 1999, and Fleay's remains the only park on the Gold Coast where you can see platypus.

Rosemary Fleay-Thomson's 2007 book Animals First, tracing her father's trailblazing journey, is available online and Stephen's YouTube channel, Favenchi, includes a number of videos on the subject.

 

Stephen was 'crowned' The Lizard King for this photo with his robe of lizards by dad David Fleay, which was published in the Brisbane Telegraph.
Stephen was 'crowned' The Lizard King for this photo with his robe of lizards by dad David Fleay, which was published in the Brisbane Telegraph.

 

To ensure Fleay's survived, David and Sigrid Fleay sold the land in the early 1980s to the state government for a nominal amount, and it became heritage listed in 2001.

You can become a Friend of Fleay's for just $10, and $5 annual registration, make a donation or volunteer at www.fleayswildlife.com.au/.

Entry (currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions) costs $24.70 adults, $11.20 children over 4, $16.30 pensioners. Phone 07 5669 2051.


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