Profile: Gerald Durrell

A passionate zoo keeper and other animals

Mark Abley September 1 1980
Profile: Gerald Durrell

A passionate zoo keeper and other animals

Mark Abley September 1 1980

A passionate zoo keeper and other animals

Profile: Gerald Durrell

Mark Abley

Gerald Durrell is a passionate man. The enormous living room of his home in Jersey, a British island off the coast of France, is packed with books, animal carvings and assorted bric-a-brac; yet Durrell, casually dressed and sunk in a red plush chair, overflows the room with a larger-than-life presence. He can talk with fluency and vehemence about anything from poetry to cooking, politics to music. But underneath the fluency lies the bitterness of a man who has devoted his working life to the ever-more-precarious survival of animals; the anger of a portly Cassandra. “In India they’re going to flood a valley and I heard it said, ‘We cannot afford these ecological extravagances [saving the animals involved/ You bloody well can’t have an ‘ecological extravagance.’ It’s like saying you can breathe without oxygen.

But we’re governed by illiterates.”

Durrell is the author of more than 20 books, most of them dominated by animals, most of them best sellers. Two of his books describe the Jersey Zoo which he founded 21 years ago on the grounds of a medieval manor. Called the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, its aim is to establish breeding stocks of rare species of wildlife and, wherever possible, to reintroduce groups of these animals to nature. In the past three years more than 200 Jamaican boas have been born there—probably a larger number than remain in the wild. The roar of an Indian lion and the delicate cries of lemurs fill the air. Almost wistfully, Durrell is saying that “there’s nothing from Canada so greatly endangered of becoming extinct that we would have to cope with it here.” The Trust, like Lourdes, is a last resort.

To keep it functioning in an era of fierce inflation, Durrell has recently

launched an international fund-raising campaign designed to ensure that no animal in his care disappears for financial reasons—Save Animals From Extinction, or SAFE.

Nowadays he divides his time among Jersey, worldwide travel, fund-raising and a house in southern France—the house where his brother Larry wrote the Alexandria Quartet. Durrell, 55, is divorced from his first wife; last year he married Lee Wilson McGeorge, 30, a brunette from Tennessee whom he calls “honey” and treats with manifest affection. “I have to keep churning away the old books,” he says, gazing at her mildly. “Between my bank manager and my wife, everybody’s breathing down my neck. To write a book I’ve got

to sit like an elderly, rather rotund squirrel on a wheel.”

With a quip for all occasions and an almost total lack of reticence, Durrell is a journalist’s dream. Anyone less colorful, less happy to be outrageous, might not have accomplished so much. The pale greyness of his bushy hair and beard betrays his advancing age, and a protuberant belly betrays his love of good food (including veal, grouse and venison)—but it’s a mistake to suppose that an ebullient wit and a paunch sum up Gerald Durrell. He is a sensitive, unpredictable man whose love of the natural world goes far beyond biologi-

cal curiosity. “You go to a hedgerow in England and you see a foxglove standing there. Do you know why it’s called that? Because they thought that a fox would put one of those on its feet and run without scent. It’s a beautiful flower, a marvelous thing to have around you. And it helps if you’re suffering from heart failure. But even if you weren’t dying of heart failure, you should look at it—and be thankful.” Durrell has been giving thanks for wild things almost since his birth in India in 1925. “My father was a civil engineer—he built some of the best bridges in the Great White Raj —and he died when I was 2.1 have only one mem-

ory of him: of getting into bed with him and of him telling me a story about the three bears.” An animal story, of course. After his father’s death the family moved reluctantly to England, and then (at 23-year-old Larry’s suggestion) to the Greek island of Corfu. Much of Durrell’s life has been spent on islands, and his Trust specializes in the fauna of obscure islands (Mauritius and Rodrigues) which no other zoos exhibit. His childhood was the stuff that everyone else’s dreams are made of: “We had six years of intense life in Corfu, of total freedom because we were unworried about financial things. You

can pack away a hell of a lot into six years—the most vivid portion of my whole life.” He has written three books about that time, including the delightful classic My Family and Other Animals, and there may be more to come.

As a young man he worked as a zoo keeper near London, then used up his private inheritance on three animalcollecting expeditions to the tropics. The need to finance further expeditions drove him to write, a suggestion first put forward by Larry: “He was delighted at my success: he’s always encouraged me, always backed me up. We get on tremendously well.”

He soon tired of collecting animals

doomed to languish in other people’s zoos, and after a long struggle founded his own, mortgaging his future amid the anemones and dairy cows of rural Jersey. The early years were a constant battle for mere survival, but today the Trust has more than 15,000 members, some 900 of them in Canada. “The important thing I’ve done in my life is the creation of this place. But I’ve been very lucky. If I hadn’t had the absolutely staunch backing of my readership, I couldn’t have done it. We’ve only taken one stumbling footstep: I want this place to be small but perfect. If you get too big, like the London Zoo or—dare I

mention the word?—Toronto, you lose all sense of purpose. I do believe we have contributed more to conservation than they have, with all their trumpeting and their spending of vast sums of money.” In recognition of his work, Yale University awarded him an honorary degree in 1977.

Durrell’s attitude to human society is that of a worried biologist. “You have to have a pecking order: it’s simply inevitable, some people are more intelligent than others. Yehudi Menuhin is a friend of mine, but I can’t play the violin. So why should I make him as inferior as me? Human beings need leaders, need some sense of belonging, some sense of family. This is being destroyed—and once it is gone you end up with the awful proletarian state of cabbages. I know there are people who are better than me! [I hate] this awful, faintly dank inferiority that people carry round with them like a wounded woodcock, always wanting to be a pheasant.”

He laughs easily and has the knack of making others laugh with him. But his mood can change as rapidly as April weather. When asked why anyone should bother about the fate of the Rodrigues fruit bat or the Haitian hutia, his blue eyes flash with anger. “What you are saying to me is, ‘What use are they to us?’ Is it not possible for animals to exist in the world without being of use to us? ‘If I want to, I’ll bash a hutia on the head’—what an arrogant attitude! Ever since that f—ing Bible was published, we have got it in our heads that everything exists for us.” One of Durrell’s most impassioned pleas for conservation, The Stationary Ark, is prefaced by a verse from Genesis in which God tells Adam and Eve to subdue the earth and have dominion over all living things. It is one of His few instructions that human beings have obeyed with enthusiasm.

Durrell is insistent that our time is short. “If in the next 20 years the amount of time and money that are now expended upon politics and similar activities of the human race, which bear no relation to life, were expended on conservation, we would still have a very poverty-stricken world but we will have a world. Otherwise we will have no world. We can’t exist without trees and animals. We simply can’t exist!” He is speaking almost wearily, with the dejected air of a man whom people like to hear and like to disregard. Then he chuckles. “I’m 184 years old; I’ve had an absolutely marvelous life; I’ve been very, very privileged. But that is a very selfish attitude, to live it up in the south of France and to say one doesn’t care about what is going on.”

Only once does his rich, rum-andblack-currant voice turn sarcastic and ugly. “We’ve just discovered that the

armadillo will help to cure leprosy. Three rousing cheers for the armadillo! So now he’s No. 1 Chap. So now we might save him, for a world that’s already so grisly with overpopulation that it isn’t true.” Durrell reserves a special scorn for the suggestion that people in the Third World might not be able to afford to conserve wildlife. “Don’t use that term Third World—I cannot stand it. It was invented by some nail-bitten journalist in a garret. If you want to make people feel inferior, invent a phrase like that. It’s all one world, isn’t it?” His beard quivers with

indignation and he darts a look at his wife. “I’m in good flight today, aren’t I?” He finishes his point, that conservation and the advancement of a country go hand in hand.

In the blink of an eye, his expression changes from a poet’s to an imp’s and he glances again at his wife in one of his characteristic, mercurial changes of subject and mood: “I’ve just decided that Brahms was a terrible old fart.” Laughter cascades through the room and out the windows to tumble across the zoo, where it mingles with the calls of dying species.