Gerald Durrell - Animal Collector, Conservationist and Author
Created | Updated Feb 24, 2006
Gerald Malcolm Durrell (1925 - 1995) worked as a collector of wild animals for zoos, eventually setting up his own magnificent Jersey Zoo. He championed the cause of the protection of endangered animal species. He was also a prolific writer of humorous autobiographical books.
Durrell had an unusual childhood. He was born in Jamshedpur, India, on 7 January, 1925. His parents were themselves both born in India but were of English and Irish descent. Durrell's father was a hard-working railway engineer who amassed a small fortune and then died suddenly when Gerald was only three, leaving his mother, Louisa Florence Durrell, to bring up four children on her own. They came to England in 1928, but were not happy there, so they moved to Corfu, Greece, in 1935 when Gerald was 10. They stayed there until the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
These five years were very important in Durrell's development. The family was relatively well off, so they didn't work. His brothers and his sister were much older, so he was a child in a house full of adults. He was more-or-less allowed to run wild. A series of ineffectual tutors made little impression on him; the only serious lessons he received were from his brother Lawrence, who went on to become an author and poet, and from an eccentric doctor, Theodore Stephanides, who was apparently an expert on everything; he taught Gerald a huge amount about natural history. The boy kept himself busy by catching and studying the abundant wildlife and became a fanatical collector of any sort of animal he could find.
In 1939 the Durrell family returned to England, where Gerald worked in a local pet shop and later as a riding instructor and stable-hand. After the war, in 1945, he got a job in Whipsnade Zoo as a student keeper. All of these jobs set him up with the knowledge he needed towards the career he really wanted: that of animal collector and zoo owner.
In the 1940s, most zoos were not particularly good at breeding captive animals; if a zoo animal died, they would replace it by capturing another from the wild. It was assumed that there was a limitless supply of such animals. Animal collectors went to exotic places and brought back anything they could catch.
Durrell wanted to be an animal collector, but as a young man totally lacking in experience, nobody would employ him. In 1947, when he reached the age of 21, he inherited a sizable sum from his father's estate. He decided to use this to fund his own animal collecting trip and got promises from various zoos that they would buy the animals from him when he returned, although nobody would commit to payment in advance. He decided on British Cameroons in West Africa (now known as Cameroon), a country rich in rain forest, as the destination, and persuaded zoologist John Yealland to share the expedition with him.
The trip was a great success, bringing back all sorts of small to medium-sized animals, including one of the first angwantibos ever seen in Europe. Durrell was now established as an animal collector. Subsequent trips included a return trip to British Cameroons, and a trip to British Guyana in South America. Unfortunately, the trips made far less money than he had expected they would.
In 1951, Durrell married Jacquie Sonia Rasen, a tiny woman with boyish looks. She had been training as an opera singer, but she gave that up to follow Durrell in his mad animal-oriented life. She accompanied him on his fourth collecting trip, to Argentina and Paraguay. This trip was a disaster; after months of collecting in Paraguay, a revolution forced them to flee the country. They had no alternative but to release most of the captured animals. They came back to England broke.
With no job and no money, the newly married couple lived on bread and tea. Gerald's brother Lawrence, now a distinguished author, and Jacquie persuaded Gerald to take up writing - travel books were a lucrative market and Gerald might make some money from writing up his animal collecting adventures. Lawrence had schooled Gerald in writing when he was a child, and had thought at one stage that Gerald might become a poet. Gerald was reluctant - he hated writing, but turned out to be a natural at it. He was a brilliant story teller and knew how to embellish a story just enough to make it hilarious without losing the essential truth.
His books rapidly became bestsellers - their easy-going style and insightful descriptions made great reading. Durrell hadn't yet set his theories of ecology and conservation into print, but his early books showed great respect for the animals in his care and opened the eyes of many readers to the wonders of nature.
He also chronicled the human side of his unusual life, with the classic My Family And Other Animals, which tells the story of his childhood years in Corfu. This book has everything; wit, compassion, animals and, above all, people - the crazy Greeks and his own eccentric family. Over the years it has never been out of print and has sold more than a million copies.
A Zoo of His Own
For his fifth animal collecting expedition, Durrell returned to the British Cameroons, but times had changed. The country was becoming decidedly anti-British and seeking independence. Officials did everything they could to impede Durrell's progress. Durrell was depressed and turned to alcohol for comfort. In a bid to cheer him up, Jacquie suggested that he should change tack and from now on collect animals for a zoo of his own rather than to be sold to other zoos. Durrell had always wanted his own zoo, because he didn't approve of the way other zoos were run. Now was the time to act!
From that day forward, Durrell worked towards setting up his own zoo, run along his own principles, with better welfare for the animals, scientific study of the animals and concentrating on animals that were becoming rare or on the border of extinction in the wild.
He returned to England with a shipload of animals which he housed temporarily in his sister Margaret's back garden in Bournemouth, to the great consternation of the neighbours. He then went looking for a site for his zoo, contacting local councils. But no one was interested, or if they were, they required Durrell to fund it himself, which he couldn't afford. Then by chance, Jacquie suggested the Channel Islands. Durrell's publisher knew a retired major in Jersey who agreed to show them around the island. It turned out that the major's own house was the perfect site for the zoo, and that he was interested in selling; almost overnight, Durrell had found a place to settle down. A year and a lot of hard work later, the Jersey Zoo was ready to open to the public, which it did in March 1959.
When the zoo opened first, zoos in general were seen as places where wild animals were displayed for the amusement and education of the public. They actively discouraged the breeding of captive animals, and relied on constant replenishment of stock by animal collectors. It was only just dawning on society that many wild species were becoming rarer and that it was the fault of humankind. Durrell was one of the first to realise this.
He decided that his zoo would specialise in animals that were endangered in the wild. These animals could then be bred in an ideal environment and returned to the wild when there were enough of them. It would be done in a carefully controlled way so that the animals would have a very good chance of survival.
Jersey Zoo is wonderful for the animals, but not so good for people coming to see the animals. This is because of the philosophy behind the zoo: the animals are not there for the benefit of the visitors; the visitors are there for the benefit of the animals (because of the money they pay at the entrance).
This philosophy is evident throughout the zoo. Many enclosures are empty because the animals have just been moved to the wild. Some enclosures have no fences at the boundary, so that the small animals in them are free to leave if they want to. Of course, they are still limited by the fence around the whole zoo. This ensures they will get used to a limited form of freedom before being thrown in at the deep end. Most of the enclosures are very large and the animals are very far from the public, being completely hidden in many cases.
One gets the impression that the zoo would allow no visitors at all if they could afford it. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating place to visit. Of particular note are the aye-ayes, an extremely rare nocturnal animal from Madagascar closely related to the lemur. The zoo is also noted for its large families of great apes, both gorillas and Sumatran orangutans.
Durrell's Subsequent Life
Having set up the zoo, Durrell could not now sit back and relax. A zoo is a bottomless pit as far as money is concerned; the small amount taken in at the gate can't cover the costs. The big problem now was fund-raising: without sponsorship, the zoo would fold. Durrell put his life into the zoo, but refused to take a salary, supporting himself and Jacquie on the profits from his books. In fact he poured a lot of his own money into the zoo, as well as his house, his time and his personal life. Jacquie later claimed she felt she had married a zoo and not a human being. The strain started to show in their marriage. Durrell started drinking heavily and becoming very depressed.
The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust1 was created, to run the zoo with the aim of preserving animal species. This effectively took the control of the zoo out of Durrell's hands, which should have given him a chance to relax, but of course he continued to work as hard as ever for the cause of the zoo.
Eventually his marriage to Jacquie had deteriorated to the point where she considered she was getting nothing from it - they were living two separate lives in the one house. In 1976, after 26 years of marriage, Jacquie walked out. Durrell was distraught, first in anguish and then furious, when he realised that she meant it.
Only a year later, Durrell met a young American zoologist by the name of Lee McGeorge. He fell madly in love with her and pursued her relentlessly. She agreed to marry him, although he was almost twice her age and she was living with another man at the time. When Gerald's divorce from Jacquie came through in 1979, he and Lee were married soon afterwards. Durrell remained with Lee until his death.
Durrell's Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust went from strength to strength, training conservationists from around the world so the work of protecting endangered species could be carried out worldwide, and not just in Jersey. Eventually they got to the stage where they were actually releasing captive-bred animals back into the wild, having successfully brought them back from the edge of extinction. Meanwhile, Durrell's marriage to Lee gave him renewed vigour, and he and Lee starred in a number of high-profile television series, including Ark on the Move, The Amateur Naturalist and Durrell in Russia. He was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1982.
Durrell had always drunk an awful lot. In his 60s, his health started to fail, and it certainly wasn't helped by the drink. He suffered from arthritis, cataracts, seizures and various other problems. Although he continued to work at his job of promoting conservation, it got harder and harder. Eventually he succumbed to cancer of the liver. He was given a liver transplant, but he never fully recovered and died on 30 January, 1995, soon after his 70th birthday.
He left behind a very different world from the one he had first studied as a boy - conservation is now in everybody's mind; Jersey Zoo is considered by zoologists to be the foremost zoo in the world; and several species have been saved from extinction directly due to the vision and hard work of this extraordinary man.
Durrell produced a steady stream of books throughout his life. As already mentioned, they are almost entirely autobiographical, describing his life and his adventures in the remote places of the world in search of animals. The books are written in a casual and humorous style, at times side-splittingly funny. He is a master story teller: the stories move us, whether they are funny, amazing or sad. No doubt some of them are a trifle exaggerated, but they give the impression of being essentially true.
The most important of these is My Family and Other Animals, telling the tale of his five years in Corfu. Of the books about animal collecting, one of the best is probably The Bafut Beagles, but just about any of the books would be worth reading.
Complete List of Books
- The Overloaded Ark
- Three Singles to Adventure
- The Bafut Beagles
- The New Noah
- The Drunken Forest
- My Family and Other Animals
- Encounters with Animals
- A Zoo in my Luggage
- Look at Zoos
- The Whispering Land
- Island Zoo
- My Favourite Animal Stories
- Menagerie Manor
- Two in the Bush
- The Donkey Rustlers
- Rosie is my Relative
- Birds, Beasts and Relatives
- Fillets of Plaice
- Catch me a Colobus
- Beasts in my Belfry
- The Talking Parcel
- The Stationary Ark
- Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons
- Garden of the Gods
- The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium
- The Mockery Bird
- The Amateur Naturalist (with Lee Durrell)
- Ark on the Move
- How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist
- Durrell in Russia
- The Fantastic Flying Journey
- The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure
- The Ark's Anniversary
- Marrying off Mother
- Toby the Tortoise
- The Aye-Aye and I