What do you do if you are totally obsessed with animals and want to spend your life protecting and working with them? One option is to start a zoo.
That is exactly what Gerald Durrell (1925 – 1995) did, in Jersey, England, in 1959. Legend has it that his first spoken word was “zoo.” Although he has since passed, his work continues through the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, in the original zoo and in other sites – including Madagascar and Assam - around the world. Durrell traveled the world purchasing animals for his park, often going way over budget or relying on the kind gifts of his obliging, tolerant neighbors. Besides this book, he is known for related titles including My Family and Other Animals and A Zoo in My Luggage.
Durrell clearly loves all creatures and tries to understand them. Even in those who are slow or ugly or disagreeable, he finds something ineffably lovable. In fact, his goal in establishing his zoo was to conserve animals that were on the brink of extinction and to try to get them to breed in captivity:
“ The idea behind my zoo was to aid in the preservation of animal life. All over the world various species are being exterminated or cut down to remnants of their former numbers by the spread of civilization…This, it has always seemed to me, should be the main function of any zoo, but it is only recently that the majority of zoos have woken up to this fact and tried to do anything about it.”
His was one of the first to focus on this aspect, not just on collecting and displaying exotic creatures, and he was amazingly successful at his breeding attempts.
His reports of arranged marriages – between such creatures as Rock apes, North American skunks and slender lorises - are delightful and often hilarious. Several of the species recounted in this volume are unknown to this reader (many being more European than American) and are not listed in my many animal guidebooks.
Some of the most enjoyable – and amazing - sections of the books involve details of various tricky surgeries or of making accommodations to comfort animals and allow them to feel at home. One of my favorites is about Topsy, an orphaned baby woolly monkey. As Topsy’s previous experience with humans had not been good,
“she threw herself in fits of screaming hysterics… if we so much as opened the door of her cage…. Then we had a brain-wave: if Topsy would not accept us as foster parents, would she accept something else? How about a teddy-bear?… The bear had a pleasant if slightly vacuous expression, and was just about the size that Topsy’s mother would be, so we put it in the cage and awaited results.”
The infant took to it almost instantly, “clinging to it with a fierce, possessive passion that was quite touching.” She even let humans lift her – with the teddy - out of the cage so they could examine or inject her or clean her fur. When they removed the bear to clean it, she threw another screaming fit. Her scream was “like the screech of a knife on a plate, magnified a million times.” She screamed for hours.
So, Topsy’s keepers went to a local shop and bought another teddy closely resembling the original one. Thereafter, they swapped the teddies when one got dirty. Eventually, she was weaned from the bears and put into a cage with a large guinea-pig “of placid disposition and no brain.” Although Topsy liked her roommate well enough, Harold, as he was dubbed, was not impressed. Soon Topsy could be put into a cage with fellow woolly monkeys, and “Harold… spends all day up to his knees in vegetables, champing his way through them with grim determination.”
Let it be said: I am not a huge fan of zoos. Many have intolerable conditions; many animals are depressed, bored and completely out of their element, with few if any of their species as companions. Nevertheless, based on all I have read of Durrell’s zoo in this and other books, his institution seems to possess all the good qualities of such an institution. Add to that the fact that he is quite hilarious in his descriptions, and these two factors make this an eminently enjoyable book, especially for animal lovers.