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By Gerald Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
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 a zoo 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 one 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.
The average zoo day begins just before dawn; the sky will be almost imperceptibly tinged with yellow when you are awakened by the bird-song. At first, still half asleep, you wonder whether you are in Jersey or back in the tropics, for you can hear a robin chanting up the sun, and, accompanying it, the rich, fruity, slightly hoarse cries of the touracous. Then a blackbird flutes joyfully, and as the last of his song dies the white-headed jay thrush bursts into an excited, liquid babble. As the sky lightens, this confused and cosmopolitan orchestra gathers momentum, a thrush vies with the loud, imperious shouts of the seriamas, and the witches' cackle from the covey of magpies contrasts with the honking of geese and the delicate, plaintive notes of the diamond doves. Even if you survive this musical onslaught and can drift into a doze again, you are suddenly and rudely awakened by something that resembles the strange, deep vibrating noise that a telegraph pole makes in a high wind. This acts upon you with the same disruptive effect of an alarm clock, for it is the warning that Trumpy has appeared, and if you have been foolish enough to leave your window wide open you have to take immediate defensive action. Trumpy is a grey-winged trumpeter, known to his more intimate ornithologist friends as Psophia crepitans. His function in the Zoo is three-fold – combined guide, settler-in and village idiot. He looks, to be frank, like a badly made chicken, clad in sombre plumage as depressing as Victorian mourning: dark feathers over most of his body and what appears to be a shot-silk cravat at his throat. The whole ensemble is enlivened by a pair of ashgrey wings. He has dark, liquid eyes and a high, domed forehead which argues a brainpower which he does not possess.
Trumpy – for some reason best known to himself – is firmly convinced that his first duty of each day should be to fly into one's bedroom and acquaint one with what has been going on in the Zoo during the night. His motives are not entirely altruistic, for he also hopes to have his head scratched. If you are too deeply asleep – or too lazy – to leap out of bed at his greeting cry, he hops from the window-sill on to the dressing-table, decorates it extravagantly, wags his tail vigorously in approval of his action, and then hops on to the bed and proceeds to walk up and down, thrumming like a distraught cello until he is assured that he has your full attention. Before he can produce any more interesting designs on the furniture or carpet, you are forced to crawl out of bed, stalk and catch him (a task fraught with difficulty, since he is so agile and you are so somnambulistic), and push him out on to the window-ledge and close the window so that he cannot force his way in again. Trumpy now having awakened you, you wonder sleepily whether it is worth going back to bed, or whether you should get up. Then from beneath the window will come a series of five or six shrill cries for help, apparently delivered by a very inferior soprano in the process of having her throat cut. Looking out into the courtyard, on the velvet-green lawns by the lavender hedge, you can see an earnest group of peahens searching the dewy grass, while around them their husband pirouettes, his shining and burnished tail raised like a fantastic, quivering fountain in the sunlight. Presently he will lower his tail, and, throwing back his head, will deafen the morning with his nerve-shattering cries. At eight o'clock the staff arrive, and you hear them shouting greetings to each other, amid the clank of buckets and the swish of brushes, which all but drowns the bird-song. You slip on your clothes and go out into the cool, fresh morning to see if all is right with the Zoo.
In the long, two-storied granite house – once a large cider press and now converted for monkeys and other mammals – everything is bustle and activity. The gorillas have just been let out of their cage, while it is being cleaned, and they gallop about the floor with the exuberance of children just out of school, endeavouring to pull down the notices, wrench the electric heaters from their sockets or break the fluorescent lights. Stefan, brush in hand, stands guard over the apes, watching with a stern eye, to prevent them from doing more damage than is absolutely necessary. Inside the gorillas' cage Mike, rotund and perpetually smiling, and Jeremy, with his Duke of Wellington nose and his barley-sugar-coloured hair, are busy, sweeping up the mess that the gorillas' tenancy of the previous day entailed and scattering fresh, white sawdust in snowdrifts over the floor. Everything, they assure you, is all right: nothing has developed any malignant symptoms during the night. All the animals, excited and eager at the start of a new day, bustle about their cages and shout 'Good morning' to you. Etam, the black Celebes ape, looking like a satanic imp, clings to the wire, baring his teeth at you in greeting and making shrill, chuckling noises. The woolly-coated orange-eyed mongoose lemurs bound from branch to branch, wagging their long thick tails like dogs, and calling to each other in a series of loud and astonishingly pig-like grunts. Farther down, sitting on his hind legs, his prehensile tail wrapped round a branch, and surveying his quarters with the air of someone who has just received the freedom of the city, is Binty, the binturong, who suggests a badly made hearthrug, to one end of which has been attached a curiously oriental-like head with long ear-tufts and circular, protuberant and somewhat vacant eyes. The next-door cage appears to be empty, but run your fingers along the wire and a troupe of diminutive marmosets comes tumbling out of their box of straw, twittering and trilling like a group of canaries. The largest of these is Whiskers, the emperor tamarin, whose sweeping snow-white Colonel Blimp moustache quivers majestically as he gives you greeting by opening wide his mouth and vibrating his tongue rapidly up and down.
Upstairs, the parrots and parakeets salute you with a cacophony of sound: harsh screams, squeakings resembling unoiled hinges, and cries that vary from 'I'm a very fine bird', from Suku, the grey parrot, to the most personal 'Hijo de puta', squawked by Blanco, the Tucuman Amazon. Farther along, the genets, beautifully blotched in dark chocolate on their golden pelts, move as quicksilver through the branches of their cage. They are so long and lithe and sensuous that they seem more like snakes than mammals. Next door, Queenie, the tree ocelot, her paws demurely folded, gazes at you with great amber eyes, gently twitching the end of her tail. A host of quick-footed, bright-eyed, inquisitive-faced mongooses patter busily about their cages, working up an appetite. The hairy armadillo lies supine on its back, paws and nose twitching, and its pink and wrinkled stomach heaving as it dreams sweet dreams of vast plates of food. You reflect, as you look at it, that it is about time it went on a diet again, otherwise it will have difficulty in walking, and you make a bet with yourself as to how many visitors that day would come to tell you that the armadillo was on its back and apparently dying: the record to date has been fifteen visitors in one day.
Outside, the clank of a bucket, the burst of whistling, herald the approach of Shep, curly-haired and with a most disarming grin. As his real name is John Mallet it was inevitable that he should be called Shepton Mallet which, in turn, has degenerated into Shep. You walk up the broad main drive with him, past the long twelve-foot-high granite wall ablaze with flowering rock plants, and down to the sunken water-meadow where the swans and ducks swim eagerly to welcome him as he empties out the bucket of food at the edge of the water. Having ascertained from Shep that none of his bird charges have during the night sickened or died or laid eggs, you continue on your tour.
The Bird House is aburst with song and movement. Birds of every shape and colour squabble, eat, flutter and sing, so that the whole thing resembles a market or a fairground alight with bright colours. Here a toucan cocks a knowing eye at you and clatters his huge beak with a sound like a football rattle; here a black-faced lovebird, looking as though he had just come from a minstrel show, waddles across to his water-dish and proceeds to bathe himself with such vigour that all the other occupants of the cage receive the benefit of his bathwater; a pair of tiny, fragile diamond doves are dancing what appears to be a minuet together, turning round and round, bowing and changing places, calling in their soft, ringing voices some sort of endearments to each other.
You pass slowly down the house to the big cage at the end where the touracous now live. The male, Peety, I had hand-reared while in West Africa. He peers at you from one of the higher perches and then, if you call to him, he will fly down in a graceful swoop, land on the perch nearest to you and start to peck eagerly at your fingers. Then he will throw back his head, his throat swelling, and give his loud, husky cry: 'Caroo ... Caroo ... Caroo ... coo ... coo ... coo.' Touracous are really one of the most beautiful of birds. Peety's tail and wings are a deep metallic blue, while his breast, head and neck are a rich green, the feathering so fine and shining that it looks like spun glass. When he flies, you can see the undersides of his wings, which flash a glorious magenta red. This red is caused by a substance in the feathers, called turacin, and it is possible to wash it out of the feathers. Place a touracou's wing feather in a glass of plain water, and presently you will find the water tinged with pink, as though a few crystals of permanganate of potash had been dissolved in it. Having dutifully listened to Peety and his wife sing a duet together, you now make your way out of the Bird House.
Dodging the exuberant welcome of the chimpanzees, who prove their interest in your well-being by hurling bits of fruit – and other less desirable substances – with unerring accuracy through the wire of their cage, you walk to the Reptile House. Here in a pleasant temperature of eighty degrees the reptiles doze. Snakes regard you calmly with lidless eyes, frogs gulp as though just about to succumb to a bout of sobs, and lizards lie draped over rocks and tree-trunks, exquisitely languid and sure of themselves. In the cage which contains the Fernand skinks I had caught in the Cameroons, you can dig your hands into the damp, warm soil at the bottom of it and haul them out of their subterranean burrow, writhing and biting indignantly. They have recently shed their skins, and so they look as though they have been newly varnished. You admire their red, yellow and white markings on the glossy black background, and then let them slide through your fingers and watch as they burrow like bulldozers into the earth. John Hartley appears, tall and lanky, bearing two trays of chopped fruit and vegetables for the giant tortoises. The previous night had been a good feeding one, he tells you. The boa-constrictors had had two guinea pigs each, while the big reticulated python had engulfed a very large rabbit, and lies there bloated and lethargic to prove it. The horned toads, looking more like bizarre pottery figures than ever, had stuffed themselves on baby chickens, and, according to their size, the smaller snakes were busily digesting white rats or mice.
Round the back of the house are some more of the monkey collection that have just been let out into their outdoor cages: Frisky, the mandrill, massive and multi-coloured as a technicoloured sunset, picks over a huge pile of fruit and vegetables, grunting and gurgling to himself; farther along, Tarquin, the cherry-crowned mangabey, with his grey fur, his mahogany-coloured skull-cap and his white eyelids, goes carefully through the fur of his wife, while she lies on the floor of the cage as though dead. Periodically he finds a delectable fragment of salt in her fur and pops it into his mouth. One is reminded of the small boy who had witnessed this operation with fascinated eyes and had then shouted: 'Hi, Mum, come and see this monkey eating the other one.'
Up in their paddock the tapirs, Claudius and Claudette, portly, Roman-nosed and benign, play with Willie, the black and white cat, who guards the aviaries near by from the rats. Willie lies on his back and pats gently at the whiffling, rubbery noses of the tapirs as they sniff and nuzzle him. Eventually tiring of the game, he would rise and start to move off, whereupon one of the tapirs would reach forward and tenderly engulf Willie's tail in its mouth and pull him back, so that he would continue this game of which they never seemed to tire. In the walled garden the lions, butter-fat and angry-eyed, lie in the sun, while near them the cheetahs would be languidly asprawl amid the buttercups, merging with the flowers so perfectly that they became almost invisible.
At ten o'clock the gates open and the first coach-loads of people arrive. As they come flooding into the grounds, everyone has to be on the alert, not, as you may think, to ensure that the animals do not hurt the people, but to ensure that the people do not hurt the animals. If an animal is asleep, they want to throw stones at it or prod it with sticks to make it move. We have found visitors endeavouring to give the chimpanzees lighted cigarettes and razor-blades; monkeys have been given lipsticks which, of course, they thought were some exotic fruit and devoured accordingly, only to develop acute colic. One pleasant individual (whom we did not catch, unfortunately) pushed a long cellophane packet full of aspirins into the chinchilla cage. For some obscure reason one chinchilla decided that this was the food it had been waiting for all its life and had eaten most of it before we came on the scene: it died the next day. The uncivilized behaviour of some human beings in a zoo has to be seen to be believed.
Now, there might be any one of fifty jobs to do. Perhaps you go to the workshop where Les, with his craggy face and bright eyes, is busy on some repair work or other. Les is one of those people who are God's gift to a zoo, for no job defeats him and his ingenuity is incredible. He is like a one-man building firm, for he can do anything from welding to dovetailing, from cementing to electrical maintenance. You discuss with him the new line of cages you are planning, their size and shape, and whether they should have swing doors, or whether sliding doors would be more convenient.
Having thrashed out this problem, you remember that one of the giant tortoises had to have an injection. On your way to deliver this, you pass an excited crowd of North Country people round the mandrill cage, watching Frisky as he stalks up and down, grunting to himself, presenting now his vivid, savagely beautiful face, and now his multi-coloured rear to their eyes.
'Ee,' says one woman in wonderment, 'you can't tell front from back.'
Lunchtime comes and so far the day has progressed smoothly. As you sit down to eat, you wonder if there will be a crisis during the afternoon: will the ladies' lavatories overflow, or, worse still, will it start to rain and thus put off all the people who are intending to visit the Zoo? Lunch over, you see that the sky is, to your relief, still a sparkling blue. You decide to go down and look at the penguin pond, for which you have certain ideas of improvement.
You scuttle surreptitiously out of the house, but not surreptitiously enough, for both your wife and your secretary catch you in rapid succession and remind you that two reviews and an article are a week overdue and that your agent is baying like a bloodhound for the manuscript you promised him eighteen months previously. Assuring them, quite untruthfully, that you will be back very shortly, you make your way down to the penguins.
Excerpted from Menagerie Manor by Gerald Durrell. Copyright © 1964 Gerald Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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