ETCETERA / How We Met: 56. Gerald Durrell and Lee McGeorge Durrell

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The Independent Culture
Author, animal-lover and zookeeper, Gerald Durrell, 67, was born in India, the son of a civil engineer. Much of his childhood was spent on Corfu, which inspired the hilarious 'My Family and Other Animals'. His latest book, 'The Aye-aye and I', is about a rescue expedition to capture the legendary black creature with huge eyes and slender fingers that lives only in Madagascar. His American wife Lee McGeorge Durrell, 43, is leading a campaign to save the world's rarest tortoise, the ploughshare, also from Madagascar. The couple live in Jersey and the South of France.

GERALD DURRELL: I knew absolutely nothing about Lee's existence. But when I heard that Duke University's lemur collection might close down, I was absolutely horrified, and I thought, 'I'll go and have a look - perhaps I can offer some of them a home at my zoo in Jersey.'

So I went to Duke, which is in North Carolina, and was given the real one-two, buckle-my-shoe treatment. All the professors were there, and they laid on a party for me. They always pour pint-sized glasses of scotch in America, so we were well away pretty quickly. And then I spotted this creature sitting on a couch, and I went up to her, and said: 'Hello, my name's Gerry Durrell.'

'I know,' she said

'Who are you?'

'Lee McGeorge.' I looked at her hands. They were ringless. And I looked around to check if there was a large hunky male looming over protectively, and there wasn't. So I thought: 'Hi-ho, here we go.'

She said she was studying animal communication, which happened to be one of the things I was really interested in. Then I found she'd been to Madagascar, where I had never been. So I thought this is taking a turn for the better, and the better, and the better. I decided to spend the rest of the evening with her.

We drove to the restaurant in her car, which was full of dead leaves and dog hairs, and we were talking so much we got lost. We had this funeral cortege of professors in limousines following us, going round and round in circles like Japanese waltzing mice.

But we got there and we had a very long and boozy evening. I had a crashing hangover the next morning, but I remember thinking, well, she was undeniably attractive, but was she really as intelligent as I thought she was? Or was it just the drink?

So I decided to find out. The first person I called was a great doyenne of Madagascan studies, and I asked her: 'Do you know a girl called Lee McGeorge?' She said: 'Yes. One of the most brilliant students I've ever come across.' So I said: 'Oh good. Now I know the answer.' But how, I thought, does a lecherous old bugger like me, who's old enough to be her grandfather, get her over to Jersey? Because I knew that if I could get her to Jersey she'd get hooked. Not on me. But on the project.

So I phoned her up and I said: 'I've just heard that a little old lady, a widow, has died and left me a small legacy - to me personally, not to the (Jersey Wildlife Preservation) Trust - to use as I see fit. I'd like to set up a studio of animal communication in Jersey. Would you like to do it?' Of course, there was no little old widow lady but I couldn't very well tell her I'd pay her way over myself. Anyway, she came, and after a couple of weeks she was hooked. So before she left I asked her to marry me. I'm the only man in history who's been married for his zoo.

I'd been married before and was on the point of getting divorced. I kept my ex-wife waiting a couple of years because I refused to be divorced on grounds of cruelty. If I'd known I was going to meet Lee I would have hurried the whole procedure through much more quickly.

I was very disappointed with my first marriage. I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. But we were married for 25 years, which is a long time. After my wife left me, I thought: 'Well, OK. Now let's play the field. To hell with it. I don't want anything more to do with women except in bed.' I suppose it was rather an arrogant attitude to adopt. But it was the result of being hurt. But then, of course, I met this creature, and made the fatal mistake of falling in love with her. Absolutely fatal. A man of my age, falling in love with a woman who's young enough to be his great great granddaughter.

The extraordinary thing is it works. All our likes and dislikes match absolutely: food, music, everything. Even animals. For our 10th wedding anniversary I gave her four tarantulas.

We work together all the time. We went to Madagascar together on the aye-aye expedition, and to check up on the project that Lee's masterminding to save the ploughshare tortoise, which is the rarest in the world.

Lee is very, very organised. She's a terrible stickler. When we write a book together, she provides the hard facts and things, and I just touch it up with bit of purple prose here and there. She's as passionate about the work as I am. And she'll keep it going after I'm gone. That's why I always say I married a good widow.

LEE McGEORGE DURRELL: I was living in Madagascar doing field research for my dissertation in zoology. When I wasn't actually out in the bush I would come back to the closest town, Fort Dauphin, where the only English speakers were a whole load of Lutheran missionaries. They had a library in which there were books by this man Durrell. I'd never heard of him, but somebody said: 'Oh, you must read him.' I started with My Family and Other Animals. I remember sleeping in the attic, and I had a pet fruit bat, still just a baby. Because they're nocturnal he would go around the room - which had a wooden floor - and you could hear his wings and elbows clunking on the floor. I would be immersed in this book, by the kerosene lamp.

So that's how I first read Gerald, and of course I never imagined in the world that I would actually meet him. But I did. He came over to see our lemur-breeding programme at Duke University, when I was writing up my research. I was invited to a couple of parties along with all my professors. I was just a student then, but in walked this man, and he came right up to me. Then I was the only person who knew where this restaurant was, so he said: 'I'll ride with you, Lee.' But I got hopelessly lost, and we didn't get there till 10. It was a disaster. But the reason we got lost was that we were talking about what we were passionately interested in, not just in animals, but also in saving them.

Gerald's divorce came through in the spring of 1979, and we got married that summer. Now we live half in Jersey, half in the South of France, which is where we write. We're early risers - 6.30 or so. More often than not he makes the tea and brings it to me in bed. Then I'll go and wrestle with my plants and he'll start work on something. Then we might go to the market in Nimes together and have a coffee in the square, after which we come back and cook lunch. And Gerry always has a nap in the afternoon.

In the early 1980s, we signed an agreement with the Malagasy government that included an expedition there to choose animals for our breeding programme in Jersey. But it wasn't until 1990 that we were able to go.

We collected several different species. We'd been there for about six weeks looking for the aye-aye, and we were so depressed. Our people were going out every night, and actually seeing them, but catching nothing. We had a whole television team there, too, who were paying for half the expedition. They'd come expressly to film the aye-aye and nothing else.

One day Gerry was feeling rotten because his hips were hurting - he's had two hip replacements - so he was trying to sleep. It was a hot afternoon and two old men from the country came up with a filthy old tattered basket. People had been bringing in all sorts of smaller animals all the time once they heard we were interested. So - rather wearily - I said: 'What's that?' And they said, 'Aye-aye.' They pronounce it 'hi-hi'. I didn't believe them, but I looked inside and there was this great lump of black fur, about the size of a big cat, with a big bushy tail. It really couldn't have been anything else.-

(Photograph omitted)