Gerald Durrell

(Jump down to read a review of The Whispering Land )
(Jump down to read a review of A Zoo in My Luggage)

"Menagerie Manor"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 24, 2007)

"Most children at the tender age of six or so are generally full of the most impractical schemes for becoming policemen, firemen, or engine drivers when they grow up, but when I was that age I could not be bothered with such mundane ambitions; I knew exactly what I was going to do: I was going to have my own zoo."

Menagerie Manor by Gerald Durrell

As a child, it was through Gerald Durrell’s wonderful novel, My Family and Other Animals that I acquired a lifelong love for tortoises and turtles, and as an adult, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for Durrell’s work as a naturalist and a conservationist. But on top of all that, Durrell is also an entertaining writer, and his book Menagerie Manor, reprinted by Penguin Books in January 2007, finds Durrell in the 1950s about to fulfill his lifelong dream of establishing a private zoo.

Let me first say that I am not, generally, a fan of zoos. I think they are dreadful places that perpetrate the myth that animals are there for us, when I think that any reasonably rational person should arrive at the view that it’s supposed to be the other way around.  Zoos do rather give people the wrong impression of our relationship vis-à-vis the animal kingdom. After all, we can plonk a few pence down and receive a good day’s entertainment gawking at the animals behind bars. Who among us has not seen an obnoxious child (or adult for that matter) whacking on the glass cage trying to get the animal inside to do something, anything to entertain us?

Durrell, who officially opened his private zoo in 1959, was considered a bit of a rebel back in those unenlightened days, and he was even blackballed by the British zoo community at one time. He held very firm, visionary opinions concerning the purposes of zoos--places he argued that should serve, first and foremost as a reserve for critically endangered species, with a goal of establishing a successful breeding programme. To Durrell, the public always came second to the animals, and they are, as he makes clear in his book, a necessary evil.

Menagerie Manor begins with Durrell and his wife Jacquie looking for a suitable home for his new zoo. He has lodged a large number of animals with his sister in Bournemouth, but when the local council refuses permission to allow Durrell’s zoo to be homed there, a lead takes him to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. Jersey is located between the northern coast of France and the southern coast of England. It’s a small island--just 45 square miles--and it’s here that Durrell achieved his lifelong ambition to open a private zoo.

While Durrell’s sister was thrilled to “rid her back garden of some two hundred assorted denizens of the jungle,” she also considered the plan to relocate to Jersey a “hare-brained scheme.” Durrell’s intent was never to establish a zoo as a commercial venture; instead his goal was to “aid in the preservation of animal life. He felt that while zoos perceived that some species had “commercial or touristic value,” other species were sadly neglected. While he realized that the best solution was to preserve natural habitats, he also acknowledged that this was sometimes impossible. So he began his zoo with the goal of maintaining “breeding stocks” so that should the species become extinct in the wild, at least it would not vanish from the planet entirely. The Jersey Zoo (now known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) was started with the goal of “building up breeding stocks of rare creatures” once it became self-supporting.

Each of the chapters opens with a short excerpt from a letter written by some member of the public, and these amusing snippets give us a good taste of the range of people who were attracted to Durrell and his idea of exactly how a zoo should be run. Durrell takes the reader through an average day at the zoo, and then concentrates his story on exactly how the zoo was built up over the first five years. Durrell received overwhelming support from the Jersey community, and these pages are full of instances in which the locals rallied to gather acorns or wood lice for various dietary requirements of the zoo’s inhabitants.

Durrell explains how he acquired his prized gorillas, and how he went to purchase pigeons and came home with orangutans. Also included are details of the vagaries of establishing breeding programmes, antics with the BBC, the frustration and of coping with diseased animals, and the general annoyances associated with dealing with members of the public. Durrell’s ever present sense of humour never abandons these pages--even in the midst of strife, bank overdrafts and rampaging escaped animals, and as always Durrell’s descriptions of the animals he loves and observes capture his appreciation and sense of wonder:

We had a pair of slender lorises of which we were inordinately proud. These creatures look rather like drug addicts that have seen better days. Clad in light grey fur, they have enormously long and thin limbs and body; strange almost human hands; and large lustrous brown eyes, each surrounded by a circle of dark fur, so that the animals appears as though it is recovering either from some sort of ghastly debauchery or an unsuccessful boxing tournament.

Durrell describes the funny times, the excitement, and the triumphs of establishing a successful breeding programme. But there are frustrations, disappointments, and the ones that slip from life no matter how hard you try to prevent it. Always optimistic, always joyful, Durrell is a wonderful writer, and he is one of the very best authors when it comes to respecting and honoring our non-human planet-sharers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews

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"The Whispering Land"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 24, 2007)

"When you have a large collection of animals to transport from one end of the world to the other you cannot, as a lot of people seem to think, just hoist them aboard the nearest ship and set off with a gay wave of your hand. There is slightly more to it than this. Your first problem is to find a shipping company who will agree to carry animals. Most shipping people, when you mention the words “animal cargo” to them, grow pale, and get vivid mental pictures of the Captain being eviscerated on the bridge by a jaguar, the First Officer being slowly crushed in the coils of some enormous snake, while the passengers are pursued from one end of the ship to the other by a host of repulsive and deadly beasts of various species. Shipping people, on the whole, seem to be under the impression you want to travel on one of their ships for the sole purpose of releasing all the creatures which you spent six hard months collecting."

The Whispering Land by Gerald Durrell

I have tremendous respect for the work of Gerald Durrell. I came across his novel My Family and Other Animals many years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. Most books and films about animals are too sentimental for my taste or show an inherent cavalier or callous disregard for animal life. But Durrell’s books have always held a special place for me. Durrell, who died in 1995, possessed very strong ideas about the purpose of a zoo, and those opinions didn’t make him popular in some circles. But for Durrell, it was all about the animals, and that attitude is apparent on every page of his books. In the 1950s, Durrell traveled to Argentina to collect rare animals for his Jersey Zoo. The delightfully humorous memoir The Whispering Land —a sequel to A Zoo in My Luggage--is an account of his adventures in Argentina, and it’s full of details of the animals—and the people--Durrell met during his travels. Durrell seems to enjoy nothing more than studying animals and delights in learning from those observations.

Durrell relates his often-arduous journey through some of the rugged remote backcountry of Argentina in his indefatigable task to gather animals for the zoo, and Darwin is never far from Durrell’s thoughts.  Durrell often finds himself wondering how fellow naturalist Darwin felt when he saw Argentina’s vast array of wildlife. Durrell doesn’t bother to hide his sense of awe at the variety of wildlife and the beauty of the Argentinean landscape.  In one chapter, he describes discovering a “penguin city” on a beach, and he records the daily life of the parents and their babies with delight and rampant curiosity. Durrell notes that there’s quite a range of competence and responsibility in the penguin world when it comes to parenthood. Some adult penguins build secure nests, while others barely scrape dents in the sand. Durrell focuses on one particular youngster—he names her Henrietta—whose parents are either “dim-witted or just plain idle when it comes to gathering food.” Durrell describes with delight Henrietta’s inventive ideas to get more food from the far more industrious penguin family next door.

Another chapter describes the social life of fur seals, and Durrell becomes intrigued with the antics of a young, engaging seal he names Oswald. The next chapter is devoted to a colony of elephant seals whose indolence he compares to a “convention of dropsy sufferers having a chess tournament in a Turkish bath.” According to Durrell, compared to the boisterous social life of the fur seals, the elephant seals possess “the animation of a group of opium smokers.” Durrell also comes across a horribly neglected and starved ocelot, an overly friendly baby peccary named Juanita, and at one point, even stakes himself out in order to observe vampire bats.

But it’s Durrell’s marvelous descriptions of animal behaviour that make this book an incredible read. A wandering Guanaco (from the Llama family) disinterestedly spies Durrell with a “faint aristocratic sneer.” One evening, Durrell discovers a wonderful treasure in the rafters of a hut: “squatting there in the puddle of torchlight was a pigmy owl, a bird little bigger than a sparrow, with all the silent indignation of a vicar who, in the middle of the service, has discovered that the organist is drunk.” When the peccary, Juanita, suffers from pneumonia, Durrell sleeps with her in order to nurse her around the clock, and he notes: “it was during the nights that I found her particularly trying. She thought this business of sleeping with me a terrific idea, and flattering though this was, I did not agree. We seemed to have different ideas about the purposes for which one went to bed. I went in order to sleep, while Juanita thought it was the best time of the day for a glorious romp….She would occasionally break off her little dance in order to come and stick her wet nose in my eye, to see how I was enjoying it.”

Durrell even includes some bizarre humans in his reminiscences—he meets the rotund, implacable Rosa Lillipampila on a small plane heading for Jujuy. She sports a hat “to which half the fruit and vegetable produce of Argentina appeared to have been attached.” Durrell—who is always open to new experiences—relaxes in the company of his sedate (human) traveling companion. Durrell’s respect and deep love for animals—and his interest in his fellow human beings is never in doubt. If you love animals, and have never read Durrell before, then a delightful surprise awaits you within the covers of this marvelous book. Durrell’s unabashed enthusiasm is contagious.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

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"A Zoo in My Luggage"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 12, 2005)

"The black-footed mongoose, although still only a baby, measured some two feet in length and stood about eight inches in height…Her body, head, and tail were a rich, creamy white, while her slender legs were a rich brown that was almost black.  She was sleek, sinuous, and svelte, and reminded me of a creamy-skinned Parisienne "belle-amie" clad in nothing more than two pairs of black silk stockings."

A Zoo in My Luggage by Gerald Durrell

Naturalist/writer Gerald Durrell, with a writer's eye for the odd detail, a great sense of humor and absurdity, and an unquenchable enthusiasm for finding unusual animals and telling stories about them, recounts his third animal-collecting trip to the Cameroons in this 1960 memoir.  Recently reprinted by Penguin Books, the book is a classic of nature-writing, filled with humorous anecdotes about the animals, the discoveries made about them, and, especially, about the people whose interactions with them often led to hilarious escapades. 

Durrell had made many trips over the years to all parts of the world collecting animals for zoos, but he had always found it difficult to part with the animals on which he had lavished so much care and attention.  On this trip he intended to collect animals for his own zoo, one which would be open to the public and which would become a "self-supporting laboratory" so that he could continue studying them.  He believed that the encroaching human population and the disappearance of native habitats endangered so many animals that extinction would be inevitable for many species unless they could be rescued and bred in captivity, such as in his planned zoo.  Durrell describes his project this way: "Any normal person smitten with such an ambition would have got the zoo first and the animals next.  But throughout my life I have rarely if ever achieved what I wanted by tackling it in a logical fashion.  So, naturally, I went and got the animals first and then set about the task of finding my zoo."

Arriving on the west coast of Cameroon, Durrell soon begins to collect,  acquiring an extremely rare black-footed mongoose, followed by a squirrel, a bush baby, and two monkeys—all within twenty-four hours.  Using pidgin to converse with the Africans, Durrell refers to all animals as "beef," and he soon acquires many more rare animals from the local population, which remembers him from previous trips.  A frightening canoe ride through hippo-infested waters, an attempt to capture a fifteen-foot long python inside a narrow cave, a search for the blue-scalped, bald-headed Picanthartes bird, and the challenging experience of smoking out a hollow tree (and acquiring paper-thin whip scorpions in the process) keep Durrell and his staff energized and excited before they head deeper into Cameroon and into the highlands.

In the highlands, Durrell has arranged to stay with the Fon of Bafut, a elderly king he had met on a previous trip, but whom he had not depicted very favorably in a previous book (commenting on the king's enormous taste for and consumption of western alcoholic beverages).  Fortunately, the Fon has graciously welcomed them back on this return trip, and soon Durrell, his wife, and staff, are settled into the rural compound of the Fon of Bafut and his many wives.  Durrell eventually joins the charming Fon in many long evenings filled with talk, dance, and alcohol, but ultimately he learns as much about life from the king as the king learns from Durrell and his animals.  Soon the Fon's compound fills up with hundreds more captive reptiles, birds, and animals, including seventeen monkeys, one of which is a half-grown baboon.  Eventually, Minnie, a five-year-old chimp and Cholmondely, a baby chimp, join the "family," providing innumerable adventures, and often great hilarity.

Durrell does not omit the details of caring for these animals and feeding them, and he and his staff prove to be very "hands-on" caretakers, often having animals sleeping in boxes near their beds.  When these animals decide it is feeding time, they quickly discover the fastest way to get fed—climbing into the bed of Durrell and his wife.  The logistics of building cages and, eventually, packing them on trucks for the three-day trip back to the Cameroon coast and shipment home, reveal the level of detailed planning necessary to  keep these animals healthy and relatively calm so that they can be transported.  Upon his successful return to England, Durrell then has the daunting task of trying to find a place to put all these rare animals, a task that takes many weeks, while the zoo lives in a residential backyard, to the dismay of the immediate neighbors.

Durrell is a lively writer with a commitment to conservation and a tremendous sense of fun.  Giving the flavor of the whole trip, not just the academic details, he provides a sense of realism at the same time that he displays his own irrepressible humor, much of it directed at himself.  His sensitivity to his surroundings and his ability to convey them through vibrant descriptions make the countryside come alive, while his anecdotes about the animals and the people he meets show his interest in expanding his knowledge while fully participating in events around him. 

The book contains no epilogue to say what happened to Durrell's zoo after it was established, nor does it explain whether the captive breeding program he intended to establish has been a success.  Though this would have been especially welcome, in view of the scrutiny to which zoos have been subjected in the forty years since Durrell wrote the book, the interested reader can find answers to these questions by checking the following web sites: Gerald Durrell Jersey Zoo and Safe Hands in a Wild World

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Nonfiction

*Corfu "My Family" Triology

Fiction:

  • The Donkey Rustlers (1968)
  • Rosie Is My Relative (1968)
  • The Talking Parcel (Battle for Castle Cockatrice) (1974)
  • The Mockery Bird (1981)
  • The Fantastic Flying Journey (1987)
  • The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure (1989)
  • Keeper (1990)
  • Toby the Tortoise (1991)

Related:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Gerald DurrellGerald Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, India in 1925. When he was three his family moved to Bournemouth, then to Corfu, Greece, where Durrell spent his childhood (later made into a television comedy series in the 1970s) and where they lived until 1939. During this time he made a special study of zoology, and kept a large number of the local wild animals as pets.

In 1945 he joined the staff of the Whipsnade Park as a student keeper. In 1947 he financed (after inheriting money at 21), organized, and led his first animal-collecting expedition to the Cameroons. This was followed by a expeditions in 1948 and 1949, this time to British Guiana. He has also made expeditions to Paraguay, Argentina, Sierra Leone, Mauritius, Assam, Mexico, and Madagascar. In 1962 he and his wife went to New Zealand, Australia and Malaya to film a TV series, Two in the Bush. In 1959 he founded the Jersey Zoological Park, of which he was the director, and in 1964 he founded the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. He wrote 37 books, including the humorous memoir My Family and Other Animals (1956).

Through his work in conservation – within his zoo and as chair of the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society – and perhaps more particularly his many books and television programmes, Durrell encouraged and inspired a whole generation of naturalists, zoologists, and zoo keepers.

Gerald died in January 1995 after an extended illness.

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