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«Menagerie Manor», Gerald Durrell

For Hope and Jimmie

in memory of overdrafts, tranquilizers, and revolving creditors

 

FOREWORD

by Philippa Forrester

When I was little, I visited the Jersey Zoo that Gerald Durrell had founded and I wandered around with round eyes fully aware, even then, of the philosophy which had inspired it. Primates were free to throw themselves from tree to tree on their own islands, while rare tortoise after rare tortoise was displayed as if as captivating as Colobus! The passion for the animals, their lives, their interests and their conservation was clear, and I came away clutching a copy of My Family and Other Animals, embossed with a special stamp to show where I had bought it.

For me, that treat was more than a trip to the zoo; it was a pilgrimage to my greatest hero. Gerald Durrell represented everything I wanted to be: a conservationist, clear thinking and dedicated, brave enough to follow a dream; a writer, able to whisk me to foreign lands and then abandon me in fits of giggles; above all, a man with a grand passion.

Only as I grew up and read more about him did I realize that these great qualities come with their own problems, for things in the grown-up world are not quite as clear as they are through the saucer-eyes of the young. My respect grew.

After my childhood trip I wrote to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to suggest that if Gerald were to autograph some of his works, they could sell them in the shop for a higher price. I received a wonderful letter in reply but now I have grown up, I know that making more money for conservation is not quite so simple.

Gerald Durrell changed the face of conservation on this planet, and my respect for my childhood hero, although he is no longer with us, continues to grow as I do.

EXPLANATION

 

Dear Sir,

We should like to draw your attention to the fact that your account with us is now overdrawn…

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. At the time this did not seem to me (and still does not seem so) a very unreasonable or outrageous ambition. My friends and relatives—who had long thought that I was ‘mental’, owing to the fact that I evinced no interest in anything that did not have fur, feathers, scales, or chiton—accepted this as just another manifestation of my weak state of mind. They felt that if they ignored my oft-repeated remarks about owning my own zoo I would eventually grow out of it. As the years passed, however, to the consternation of my friends and relatives, my resolve grew greater and greater, and eventually, after going on a number of expeditions to bring back animals for other zoos, I felt the time was ripe to acquire my own.

From my last trip to West Africa I had brought back a considerable collection of animals, which were ensconced in my sister’s suburban garden in Bournemouth. They were there, I assured her, only temporarily, because I was completely convinced that any intelligent council, having a ready-made zoo planted on its doorstep, would do everything in its power to help one by providing a place to keep it. After eighteen months of struggle, I was not so sure of the go-ahead attitude of local councils, and my sister was convinced that her back garden would go on forever looking like a scene out of one of the more flamboyant Tarzan pictures. At last, bogged down by the constipated mentality of local government and frightened off by the apparently endless rules and regulations under which every free man in Great Britain has to suffer, I decided to investigate the possibility of starting my zoo in the Channel Islands. I was given an introduction to one Major Fraser, who, I was assured, was a broad-minded, kindly soul, and would show me round the Island of Jersey and point out suitable sites.

My wife Jacquie and I flew to Jersey, where we were met by Hugh Fraser. He drove us to his family home, probably one of the most beautiful manor houses on the island. Here was a huge walled garden dreaming in the thin sunlight; a great granite wall, thickly planted with waterfalls of rock plants; fifteenth-century arches, tidy lawns, and flower-beds brimming over with colour. All the walls, buildings, and outhouses were of beautiful Jersey granite, which contains all the subtle colourings of a heap of autumn leaves, and they glowed in the sunshine and seduced me into making what was probably the silliest remark of the century. Turning to Jacquie, I said, “What a marvellous place for a zoo.”

If Hugh Fraser, as my host, had promptly fainted on the spot, I could scarcely have blamed him; in those lovely surroundings the thought of implanting the average person’s idea of a zoo (masses of grey cement and steel bars) was almost high treason. To my astonishment, Hugh did not faint but merely cocked an inquiring eyebrow at me and asked whether I really meant what I said. Slightly embarrassed, I replied that I had meant it but added hastily that I realized it was impossible. Hugh said he did not think it was as impossible as all that. He went on to explain that the house and grounds were too big for him to keep up as a private individual, and so he wanted to move into a smaller place in England. Would I care to consider renting the property for the purpose of establishing my zoo? I could not conceive a more attractive setting for my purpose, and by the time lunch was over the bargain had been sealed and I was the new ‘Lord’ of the manor of Les Augres in the Parish of Trinity.

The alarm and despondency displayed by all who knew me when I announced this can be imagined. The only one who seemed relieved by the news was my sister, who pointed out that, although she thought the whole thing was a hare-brained scheme, at least it would rid her back garden of some two hundred assorted denizens of the jungle, which were at that time putting a great strain on her relationship with the neighbours.

To complicate things even more, I did not want a simple, straightforward zoo, with the ordinary run of animals; 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. Many of the larger species are of commercial or touristic value, and, as such, are receiving the most attention. Yet, scattered about all over the world are a host of fascinating small mammals, birds, and reptiles, and scant attention is being paid to their preservation, as they are neither edible nor wearable, and are of little interest to the tourist who demands lions and rhinos. A great number of these are island faunas, and as such their habitat is small. The slightest interference with this will cause them to vanish forever; the casual introduction of rats, say, or pigs could destroy one of these island species within a year. One has only to remember the sad fate of the dodo to realize this.

The obvious answer to this problem is to see that the creature is adequately protected in the wild state so that it does not become extinct, but this is often easier said than done. However, while we are pressing for this protection, there is another precaution that can be taken, and that is to build up breeding stocks of these creatures under controlled conditions in parks or zoos, so that, should the worst happen and the species become extinct in the wild state, you have, at least, not lost it forever. Moreover, you have a breeding stock from which you can glean the surplus animals and reintroduce them into their original homes at some future date. 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. I wanted this to be the main function of mine. However, like all altruistic ideas, it was going to cost money. It was, therefore, obvious that the zoo would have to be run on purely commercial lines to begin with, until it was self-supporting. Then one could start on the real work: building up breeding stocks of rare creatures.

So this is the story of our trials and tribulations in taking the first step towards a goal which I think is of great importance.

1

MENAGERIE MANOR

Dear Mr Durrell,

I am eighteen years old strong in wind and limb having read your books can I have a job in your zoo… 

It is one thing to visit a zoo as an ordinary member of the public but quite another to own one and live in the middle of it; this at times can be a mixed blessing. It certainly enables you to rush out at any hour of the day or night to observe your charges, but it also means that you are on duty twenty-four hours a day, and you find that a cosy little dinner party disintegrates because some animal has broken its leg, or because the heaters in the reptile house have failed, or for any of a dozen reasons. Winter, of course, is your slack period, and sometimes days on end pass without a single visitor in the grounds and you begin to feel that the zoo is really your own private one. The pleasantness of this sensation is more than slightly marred by the alarm with which you view the mounting of your bills and compare them to the lack of gate-money. But in the season the days are so full and the visitors so numerous that you hardly seem to notice the passing of time, and you forget your overdraft.


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