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The Ark's Anniversary

The Ark's Anniversary

by Gerald Durrell

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The conservationist whose work inspired Masterpiece production The Durrells in Corfu recounts the early years of the Durrell Wildlife Park.
At the age of six, Gerald Durrell confidently told his mother he would one day have his own zoo. She told him it was a lovely idea and promptly forgot all about it. But the young naturalist’s


The conservationist whose work inspired Masterpiece production The Durrells in Corfu recounts the early years of the Durrell Wildlife Park.
At the age of six, Gerald Durrell confidently told his mother he would one day have his own zoo. She told him it was a lovely idea and promptly forgot all about it. But the young naturalist’s passion wasn’t about to fade away any time soon.
Written for the Durrell Wildlife Park’s twenty-fifth anniversary, The Ark’s Anniversary is the unconventional story of how one man’s dream was transformed into the esteemed organization known today as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, dedicated to saving endangered species from extinction.
In the beginning, everyone thought Durrell was crazy to place a zoo on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. But that didn’t stop people from coming to see him and his menagerie of rare and exotic animals, including celebrities like Richard Adams, Princess Grace, David Niven (who presided over the wedding of two apes), and Princess Anne (who wrote the foreword to this book). The Ark’s Anniversary is a delightful journey and a celebration of success for anyone who loves the natural world.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Gerald Durrell including rare photos from the author’s estate.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A prolific author who never fails to be entertaining, Durrell brings us up to date on his Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. Ever since he was six years old, Durrell knew he wanted to have his own zoo. How he accomplished that--and became a respected naturalist in the process--will delight readers. Demonstrating a talent for presenting strong conservation issues in a humorous and captivating way, Durrell covers not only the development of his private zoo but the associated education activities as well (including a school for conservationists from foreign countries). Dedicated to the idea that zoos need not be a ``sterile Victorian menagerie,'' he has earned the respect of colleagues worldwide in showing how zoos can be a vital force in the conservation and reintroduction of threatened species to their native environments. Readers will also enjoy such amusing incidents as a visit from Princess Anne and the chimps that came to dinner. A title to put on your reading list for a lighthearted romp through the animal kingdom.-- Edell Marie Peters, Brookfield P.L., Wis.
School Library Journal
YA-- Durrell tells the story of his quest to create a zoo in which animals could recuperate after injury; later to be set free; and, more importantly, a place where they could be saved from extinction through captive breeding. With wit and satirical humor, he re-creates the sequence of events that caused him to become the founder of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, which became a flagship for conservation efforts in zoos and preserves world wide. Readers will be drawn into the multifaceted operation of running a zoo from the procurement of funds to the acquisition of specimens and the bureaucracy that accompanies it.-- Mary Durso Schaefer, R.E. High Sch . , Springfield, VA
The prolific and passionate animal lover/interpreter spins more stories of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and his own adventures. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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The Ark's Anniversary

By Gerald Durrell


Copyright © 1990 Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4281-9


The Emergence of the Manor

At the age of twenty-one I inherited £3000, a princely sum but not sufficient to start a zoo. So I decided to become an animal collector for zoos. It was a short-lived career, because I discovered that what most dealers did was to cram twenty creatures into a cage designed for one and increase the price on the survivors. If they all survived, well and good. I could not indulge in this sort of slave traffic, so my cages were spacious and my animals well cared for: so I lost all my money. However, the experience proved invaluable. It gave me a wide schooling in the keeping of animals in the tropics, their illnesses and their quirks. It taught me that zoos were not all that I had thought them to be.

Then, penniless, at my elder brother's insistence I started to write. I was lucky. My first book was what they now call a smash hit and I have been lucky that all my subsequent books have been equally popular. With this change in my fortunes, my thoughts turned zoowards again. Borrowing £25,000 (against as yet unwritten masterpieces) from my kindly and long-suffering publisher, I decided to try to set up on the south coast of England, only to find that a succession of Labour governments had enmeshed the country in such a Kafka-like miasma of bureaucracy that the average citizen was bound immobile by red tape and it was impossible to get quite simple things agreed to by local government, let alone something as bizarre as a zoo. So, with introductions from my publisher, I went to Jersey – small, beautiful and self-governing – and within a few hours of landing I had found Les Augres Manor, and within forty-eight hours I had received the go-ahead. However, I had not rushed into the whole thing with ill-considered enthusiasm and without taking advice. I approached everyone I knew in what might loosely be called the biological zoo world whom I knew approved of the idea of captive breeding. The first was James Fisher, great ornithologist and ardent zoo man. He helped by telling me I was mad.

'You're mad, dear boy,' he said, staring at me from under his mop of iron-grey hair, looking like an extremely worried Old English sheepdog, 'quite mad. I must really advise you against the Channel Islands.'

He helped himself lavishly to my gin.

'But why, James?' I asked.

'Too far away. End of the world,' he explained, waving a dismissive hand. 'Who the hell d'you think is going to come to some remote bloody island in the English Channel to see your setup? The whole thing's lunatic. I wouldn't come that far to drink your gin. That's a measure of how silly I think your scheme is. Ruination staring you in the face. You might just as well set up on Easter Island.'

This was blunt but not encouraging.

I went to see Jean Delacour at his famous bird collection in Clères. Jean was the most incredible aviculturist and ornithologist, who had travelled extensively, gathering birds, describing new species, writing massive and comprehensive tomes on the ornithology of remote parts of the world. In both world wars his enormously valuable collection of birds had been overrun and destroyed by the Germans. When the last war ended, instead of giving up as most people would have done, Jean started his collection for the third time from scratch at Clères.

As we walked around the wonderful grounds admiring the birds and mammals, Jean gave me a lot of good advice about my scheme, and coming from a man with his vast experience his advice was invaluable. Presently we went down to the edge of the sweeping, velvet lawn where on the edge of the lake tea had been laid. We sat there, listening to the happy songs of the gibbons on their island in the lake and watched solemn troops of flamingoes, pink as cyclamen buds, crossing the green lawns, accompanied by pheasants and shining jungle-fowl, peacocks negligently trailing their jewel-encrusted tails. Presently, I decided to get France's greatest ornithologist's views on the conservation scene.

'Tell me, Jean,' I said, 'you've been a conservationist now for over sixty years ...'

'Yes,' he agreed. He was a massive man, with a huge head, not unlike that of Winston Churchill, and with an accent which Maurice Chevalier would have envied.

'Well,' I said, 'what are your views? Do you think there is any hope?'

He brooded for a moment, hands clasped over the end of his walking-stick, his chin on his hands.

'Yes,' he said at last, 'there is hope.'

I was delighted at so unpessimistic a view from such an eminent source.

'If we take up cannibalism,' he added.

I then went to see Sir Peter Scott who was, as always, enthusiastic and helpful. Almost alone among the top ranks of conservationists, Peter believed in captive breeding and it was one of his reasons for setting up his now world-famous Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. He was most encouraging and constructive about my plans and gave me lots of valuable advice, pointing out pitfalls he had encountered. As he talked he was busy finishing off a large canvas, a painting of sunrise over a marsh with a skein of geese coming in to land. As his brush moved and pecked away at the canvas the painting grew miraculously out of his apparently random daubs, and I remembered a story that had been told to me by a friend who was a painter of pedigree race and shire horses. She had gone to Peter for advice on her first show and he received her affably in his studio, wearing a polychromatic silk dressing gown. As he talked he continued work on the picture he was painting, a flock of ducks coming in to land on a marsh in a sunset. He was in the middle of giving her shrewd and excellent advice when the telephone rang.

'Damn,' said Peter, staring moodily at his canvas. Then he brightened.

'Here,' he said, turning to my friend, 'you're a painter – just fill in all these ducks' beaks with yellow, will you, while I answer the phone.'

Fortunately, Peter did not require such artistic skills from me in return for his help.

I really did not feel my scheme would have the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, as it were, unless I had outlined it to that doyen of the biological scene, Sir Julian Huxley, and received his approbation. He had always been kind and helpful in the past, but this was a somewhat grandiose idea and I was fearful that he would treat it in some damning way. I need not have worried, for he greeted it with the infectious enthusiasm he showed for every new idea, great or small. I relaxed and we had a delightful tea, with talk ranging from the monkey-puzzle forest in Chile to the skin of the giant sloth found in Patagonian caves, from the feeding habits of narwhals to the strange tooth adaptation of a lizard I had captured in Guyana, an adaptation which enabled it to catch, crush and masticate the most enormous snails with great ease. I had sent him a series of photographs depicting the whole process and he had been fascinated.

'Talking of photography, Durrell,' he said at the end of tea, 'have you seen that film young Attenborough brought back from Africa on that lioness ... you know, Elsa? It was reared by that Adamson woman.'

'No sir,' I said. 'Unfortunately, I missed it.'

He glanced at his watch. 'They're repeating it this afternoon,' he said, 'so we'll catch it, eh?'

So the greatest living English biologist and I perched on upright chairs in front of the television and Huxley switched the set on. In silence we watched Joy Adamson chasing Elsa, Elsa chasing Joy Adamson, Joy Adamson lying on top of Elsa, Elsa on top of Joy Adamson, Elsa in bed with Joy Adamson, Joy Adamson in bed with Elsa, and so on, interminably. At last the show ended and Huxley leant forward and switched off the set. He mused for a moment. I was silent.

'D'you know what, Durrell?' he asked suddenly.

I wondered what penetrating and lucid commentary on animal behaviour the greatest living English biologist was going to vouchsafe to me. 'What, sir?' I asked, and waited breathlessly for his answer.

'It's the only case of lesbianism I have ever seen between a human being and a lioness,' he said, quite seriously.

After that, I felt that any further conversation would be an anti-climax, so I left.

On 14 March 1959, the Jersey Zoological Park came into being. The first animal inhabitants were an assortment of beasts I had brought back from West Africa and stashed away in my sister's back garden in Bournemouth (that most salubrious of seaside resorts) against the day when they would become founding members of the zoo. They were shipped to Jersey and my sister's neighbours heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Of course, for several months before the animals arrived, Les Augres Manor was a scene of frenzied activity. Carpenters and masons rushing about laying cement, making cages out of everything they could get their hands on. Cages on legs we called them, made out of untreated wood, chain link and chicken wire. Packing crates were wonderfully converted into shelters and every available piece of iron piping or wrought iron from the local junk yard was grist to our mill. We transformed the things people discarded as being of no further use into animal havens and shelters: cages ungainly and ugly but serviceable sprouted everywhere.

Our setting was, of course, idyllic. The beautiful manor house – the oldest fortified manor in Jersey – sat complacently within its granite archways on the edge of a gentle valley, through which meandered a tiny stream which eventually fed a small lake, tree enshrouded. The whole manor was cosseted on all sides by minute fields, each guarded by a hedgerow of trees and bushes, ancient oaks and chestnuts. When – as is reputed – Bonnie Prince Charlie in his bid for the English throne came to take tea on the lawn in front of the manor, most of these magnificent trees must have been mere saplings. One could easily see how, with careful love, attention, pruning and planting, this property could be converted into a park like a ring of greenery with the manor house as the jewel in the setting.

The first big snag soon appeared. It is all very well to borrow £25,000 but this had to be paid back. This meant going on another expedition as soon as possible to get material for another book. So, with the utmost reluctance, I engaged a manager, a friend of some years standing whom I thought I could entrust with the task. This was a mistake. I returned to find that my written instructions and plans had been ignored and the money frittered away. Our ship (our potential Ark, if you like) was an exceedingly frail one and now the hideous shoals and reefs of bankruptcy loomed ahead. It looked as though my plan to create a place to help save animals from extinction was liable to become extinct before it could do any good work. I sacked my manager and took over myself.

The next couple of years were, to say the least, nerveracking. Each morning when I awoke I wondered if that was the day my credit was going to run out and my dream evaporate like dew. The staff were wonderful. Though working on a pittance, they were apprised of the gravity of the situation and all agreed to stay on. This was a great morale booster and gave me the courage (not unaided by tranquillizers) to go out and seduce bank managers into agreeing overdrafts and fruit and vegetable merchants into waiting patiently for their money. Gradually, very slowly, we began to swim instead of sink.

In those early years there were many bizarre happenings and even my mother was subjected to the sort of episode which can occur only if you are unwise enough to live in a zoo. Our twohalf-grown chimpanzees Chumley and Lulu had discovered, after much research, that interlink wire – if you could find a free end – could be unravelled like an old Fair Isle sweater and almost as quickly. This they proceeded to do to the wire on their cage one afternoon when no one was around. My mother, having just settled herself with a pot of tea in front of the television, heard a peremptory bang on the front door. Puzzled, she went to open it and found Chumley and Lulu on the front stairs. It was obvious from their demeanour that they had come to call, were delighted to find her at home and were in no doubt that she would greet them with the same enthusiasm with which they were greeting her. My mother measured four feet eight inches high and the chimps came up to her waist. Not one to lose her head in a crisis, nothing daunted, she invited the apes in as she would honoured guests, sat them down on a sofa and opened a large box of chocolates and a tin of biscuits. While the chimps were raucously feeding on this manna from heaven, my mother quietly phoned downstairs and reported the whereabouts of the truants. The fact that the apes could have seriously injured her did not occur to her and when I remonstrated with her for letting them into the flat she was puzzled.

'But dear,' she said plaintively, 'they came to tea,' and she added thoughtfully, 'and they had jolly sight better manners than some of the people you've had up here.'

At one time in the early days we owned an enormous and very beautiful Reticulated python called Pythagoras. Fully twelve feet long and as thick as a rugger blue's thigh, Pythagoras was a force to be reckoned with. He occupied a cage in the then Reptile House, which had been badly designed and which he was rapidly outgrowing. The cage had not been designed by me, I hasten to add, but by the manager I had put in charge in my absence. The front consisted of two large sheets of plate glass which slid over each other, making it extremely difficult to clean if the cage contained a potentially lethal creature like Pythagoras, unless you removed him first. This was a three-man job, two to restrain Pythagoras (who strongly objected) and bundle him into a giant clothes basket, while the third man cleaned out. Though the python was fairly placid as a rule, he strongly disliked being manhandled, and so it was forbidden that any member of staff should try this procedure alone. John Hartley, straight from school, a handsome lad built on the lines of a giraffe, had been with us a year and showed such enthusiasm for the work that we put him in charge of reptiles. One evening his enthusiasm got the better of him. Passing the Reptile House at dusk after the zoo had closed, I heard muffled shouts for help emanating from inside. Investigating, I found John had done the unforgivable. He had tried to clean out Pythagoras alone. The great snake had thrown its coils around him and bound him as immobile as if in a straitjacket. Fortunately, John still had hold of his head, and Pythagoras was hissing like a giant kettle.

This was no time for recriminations. I seized the reptile's tail and began to unwind him. The problem was that as fast as I unwound him from John he threw his coils around me. Soon we were both as inextricably linked as Siamese twins, and we both started to yell for help. It was after hours and I feared that the staff would have gone home. The idea of standing there all night until someone found us in the morning was not a happy one. Fortunately, our cacophonous cries were heard by a member of the mammal staff and with his help Pythagoras was restored to his rightful home. I was, as may be imagined, extremely terse with John. However, being linked together by a python seems to form some sort of bond, for John is now my Personal Assistant.

For the most part we didn't and still don't consider these sorts of episodes as interruptions to our lives, because they are part and parcel of our lives and work. It is only when we take friends or acquaintances around the collection that it is brought home to us that, to the average person, we must lead a very bizarre existence and yet – in spite of thinking us eccentric in the extreme – they are impressed. Today they see our glittering array of reptiles, snakes moving with infinitely more grace than a Balinese dancing girl, tortoises lumbering about like huge animated walnuts. We show them our wonderful group of chocolatebrown gorillas, growling like bears, the leader Jambo like a Sumo wrestler in fur, but much more handsome and gentle as a kitten. Then our shaggy Buddistic Orang utans with their oriental eyes and fur like a hundred tangled pony tails in blond, orange and red. They marvel at our tapestry of birds, cranes as slim and elegant as spears, pheasants wearing plumage of multi-coloured shot silk, flamingoes moving slowly across the green sward like blown rose petals. They fall in love with our tamarins and marmosets, smallest of the monkeys, clad in brown, orange or black fur or a pelt that glistens like pure gold, tiny fragile animals moving like quicksilver through the branches, delicate as birds and trilling and whistling like them. Then in the woods along our lake the lemurs, parti-coloured as dominoes, roaring in chorus so the ground vibrates beneath your feet. Then the babirusa, surely the most beautiful ugly animal in the world, with its great curved tusks and almost hairless body covered with as many folds and wrinkles, nooks and crannies, as a relief map of the moon. The cheetahs, sitting bolt upright in a picture frame of tall grass, the black tear stains on their faces, tear stains – so it is said – because after being created they became haughty and unkind to other animals and so were admonished by God and cried black tears which stained their faces as a reminder of His wrath.


Excerpted from The Ark's Anniversary by Gerald Durrell. Copyright © 1990 Gerald Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gerald Durrell (1925–1995) was a British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter. He is the author of the memoirs My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; A Zoo in My Luggage; The Whispering Lands; and The Garden of the Gods; and more than twenty-five nature books. A student of zoology, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey.
Gerald Durrell (1925–1995) was a British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter. He is the author of the memoirs My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; A Zoo in My Luggage; The Whispering Lands; and The Garden of the Gods; and more than twenty-five nature books. A student of zoology, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey.