Animal magic: The original environmentalist

Sir David Attenborough called him a 'one-man pressure group'. As Penguin celebrates the 50th anniversary of 'My Family and Other Animals', Louise Jury looks at the story of Gerald Durrell
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The Independent Online

It was a magical story of one child's love of nature, with scorpions on the lunch table and snakes in the bath on the idyllic island of Corfu. My Family and other Animals was a self-portrait that propelled the grown-up Gerald Durrell - and the family he described - to national fame. The book became a classic that sold more than a million copies and has been never out of print.

Now, 50 years after it was first published, the book is being presented afresh with a new Puffin edition for children and a Penguin edition of the trilogy Durrell wrote about his time on Corfu for adults.

Although the author died in 1995, his widow, Dr Lee Durrell, herself a zoologist, hopes to introduce a new generation to his writings - and, more importantly, to the conservation work he began on Jersey in 1959, where he turned his youthful passion into a lifelong mission.

Well before the world at large had woken up to the dangers of environmental degradation and the impact on the planet's bio-diversity, Durrell, a self-taught zoologist with no academic qualifications, espoused the conservation message. He founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with the aim of preserving species at risk of dying out in the wild. It now has 100 staff on Jersey and 30 more in 50 projects across 18 countries, in a programme which costs £5m a year to run.

"The reason he actually started doing what he was doing was he saw that the zoos were doing nothing for conservation and, perhaps, were even setting it back," Dr Durrell said. "Also, the youthful conservation movement of the day just thought zoos were menageries and were of no value whatsoever to the survival of species. But Gerry thought we had an opportunity to give animals a breeding sanctuary. It was revolutionary and he was very much laughed at, but he was proved right."

The Jersey zoo - which has now abandoned the name zoo because of negative connotations - not only preserves species by breeding them in captivity and then reintroducing them to their original habitat, it also provides professional training for generations of zoologists and conservationists. My Family and Other Animals was, arguably, the start of major developments in the field. "It was all born out of Gerry's vision from the very early days," Dr Durrell said. "That book and his subsequent books bred a whole generation of zoologists. A lot of people in my business come up and say, 'The only reason I do this is because I read your husband's books.'"

The couple met when Durrell gave a lecture in 1977 at the American university where Lee, a southern belle from Tennessee 25 years his junior, was finishing her PhD on the calls of mammals and birds of Madagascar.

Durrell's first marriage had recently ended, amid recriminations over his drinking and heavy workload, and he immediately began wooing the much younger woman, even creating a post especially on Jersey for her. "He was not going to be put off," she laughed. They were married in 1979 and she has continued his work with the trust as honorary director since his death 11 years ago at the age of 70.

"He was a larger than life personality and we just had such a great time together and that's what cements a relationship really - a common bond and a passion about things," she said.

Gerald Durrell was born in India in 1925 where, the apocryphal story goes, his first word was "zoo". The family returned to Britain upon the death of his father, a civil engineer, then moved to Corfu in 1935, where the living was cheap.

For the young nature-lover, the island was a paradise. "He described arriving in Corfu as being like the moment when Dorothy stepped out of the house in The Wizard of Oz and it was all Technicolor," his widow said. "So much was opened up to him. It was where he consolidated his fascination with animals and plants and the sea and forests."

Returning to England in 1939, Durrell spent the war years working in riding stables, and then began a job at Whipsnade Zoo. Its success in breeding the near-extinct Pere David's deer further stimulated his interest in conservation. Inspired by an account of animal collecting in Africa in a magazine, Durrell used a £3,000 inheritance to embark on a similar adventure in 1946 - including hunting animals in a manner that was very much of the time, although it now seems old-fashioned.

He supplied countless zoos with new species and began telling the stories of his adventures in books such as The Overloaded Ark and Three Singles to Adventure.

Then, on the back of his royalties, he borrowed the money to start his own zoo in Jersey, including a major breeding programme. Its work has included saving the Mauritius kestrel, which was down to only four birds before the trust's efforts boosted numbers to 1,000.

On Madagascar, there are about 10 endangered species that are being bred in captivity both on the island and back in Jersey as a survival insurance policy. And the government of the island of Montserrat called the Durrell Wildlife Trust in for support after a volcano devastated large parts of the island and threatened the Montserrat oriole bird and the mountain chicken which is, in fact, a frog. They are being bred on Jersey as a safety net in case the native population fails to recover.

When Durrell died, his work prompted tributes from fellow naturalists and conservationists. Sir David Attenborough hailed him as a "renegade who was right". Speaking at a memorial service at the Natural History Museum, London, the BBC's most famous naturalist described Durrell as a one-man pressure group years ahead of the anti-zoo lobby and the zoo community alike. Durrell was, Sir David argued, a beacon to a generation of zoo directors who were to be inspired by his belief that their institutions could contribute to the preservation of wildlife.

"The extraordinary thing - which is perhaps the mark of genius - was that everything he said, and, then, typically, did, seems now so obvious, so logical, and so much a part of everyday conservation language, that we easily forget how radical, revolutionary, and downright opinionated these statements seemed at the time," Sir David said. "He was truly a man before his time, when the time was already upon us."

But there are others in the environmental movement who have doubts about the approach. Craig Bennett, a conservation expert with Friends of the Earth, said the branch of conservation which stressed captured breeding of animals was not black and white and provoked some debate. (Some of course will have no truck with zoos at all.)

The danger was that Durrell's success in saving certain species through captive breeding programmes was interpreted by some others as being appropriate for species such as tigers and bears where it would not work.

"At the end of the day, the very best way of preserving species is to maintain pristine areas of habitat and that is what we are very bad at doing," Mr Bennett said. "But you can't deny that there are some species that now exist because of him. And I don't think anyone should take away the great role he played with his books in really celebrating bio-diversity and sharing how important it is.

"My Family and Other Animals is a fantastic book and everyone should read it. It really articulates in a very clear and humorous way the wonderful fascination and love that a small boy can have for wildlife and the natural world."

Dr Durrell said: "My Family and Other Animals has stood the test of time and I hope that with a lot of fanfare about the 50th anniversary it will be brought to people's minds a lot more. I hope that people will get their kids to read it and the whole awareness of animals and their conservation needs will be heightened."

On Jersey itself, an initiative between Ottakar's bookshops and Penguin is encouraging every teenager and adult on the island to read My Family and Other Animals with a donation of £1 to Durrell Wildlife for each copy sold. And the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust continues to be run according to the principles he laid down in the early days. There have been improvements to the physical environment for the animals, which were housed in enclosures made from crates and chicken wire in the early days. These days, some, such as monkeys, even run free.

"Our thinking has evolved in terms of animal husbandry," Dr Durrell said. "But the basic principles are still right there."

She believes her late husband, "a humble, self-effacing person," would be overwhelmed at the new flurry of attention but would hope it would have a positive outcome.

"Gerry, more than anybody else, got people to reconnect with animals emotionally. I don't mean sentimentally, but he just somehow makes the animals touch the inner core of the reader," she said.

"You have to have that before people can really understand what's going on in the world and the need to preserve our natural world."

The need today was, if anything, even greater than it had ever been, she said. "The situation is probably more alarming than when he started."

Durrell's namesakes

Benthophilus Durrelli Durrell's Tadpole Goby

Gobies use a sucker to adhere to rocks and coral. This new species was discovered in 2004.

Ceylonthelphusa Durrelli Durrell's Freshwater Crab

A critically rare new species of freshwater crab, found in Sri Lanka.

Kotchevnik Durrelli

From Russia, a new species of moth that is part of the superfamily Cossoidea.

Nactus Serpeninsula Durrelli Durrell's Night Gecko

Discovered on the Round Island, an uninhabited islet 22.5km north of Mauritius, this race of gecko was named after both Gerald and Lee Durrell for their contribution to saving the gecko and Round Island fauna in general. Mauritius released a stamp depicting the reptile.

Louise Jack