Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Big Cat presenter Jonathan Scott, the wildlife photographer and author

'I kept snakes and lizards at home'
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The Independent Online

Jonathan Scott, 60, has lived in Kenya for more than 30 years and been a co-presenter of BBC2's Big Cat series since 1996. Books written with his wife Angela include Big Cat Diary: Cheetah and, just out, Stars of Big Cat Diary.

Big cats are my real life but funnily enough we didn't have cats; it was dogs in our family. I was the kid that didn't get top marks in academic subjects, but the teachers in art and biology, in which you have to draw specimens, would say, "Just look at Jonathan's exercise book!"

I was the bloke with the snakes, the lizards, the guinea-pigs and the slow-worms, and I was drawing birds and sticklebacks from the word go.

My dad, who died when I was two, was an architect who had bought a smallholding. All the blokes from the farm next door were coming round to chat my mother up and the gamekeeper let the ferrets out in the kitchen.

Challow Court, Maidenhead, was a wonderful little school. I wanted to go on to Christ's Hospital, where my father had been a pupil and a governor, but I wasn't good at spelling and maths and I failed the exam. I was shattered. You're not supposed to have another bite at the cherry but my mother somehow persuaded the governors, and after a year cramming at another school, Cookham Dean, I got in.

Christ's Hospital was a wonderful school. We wore "Edwardian" gear (after Edward VI, who died in 1552). In long, cassock-like gowns and knee-breeches, when you went into the town you had to look after yourself. It was like the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue – a good training for the African bush and wildlife.

Kit Aitken, my housemaster, was a great character who had one leg; he liked me because I was good at sport.

My older sister passed all her O-levels and everyone reminded me of this. I suddenly got it, late in the day: I would get up at five in the morning and go down to the "lav end" – the bog – and swot, sweating my guts out. I only took seven O-levels.

When the letter arrived saying I had got seven passes, I rang up the school and spoke to my maths teacher: "I'm a bit puzzled. It says I passed all my O-levels." He said, "You did."

I took and then re-took biology at A-level, and at "scholarship" level. That got me into Queen's University, Belfast, which had a superb zoology department.

From the start of the four-year Honours course in zoology I felt not really sure I should be there. The subject was moving more towards statistics and computer modelling. I'm a great observer and I'll collect data but I won't be able to process and analyse it. I got a 2.1. My professor said, "What are you going to do next? You can do a PhD." I didn't want to spend my life in a lab watching toads or tapeworms; I wanted to get into the field. I said, "I'd like to do something with wildlife." He said, "Do you have a private income?"

I ignored that, and spent 15 years as a safari guide and wildlife photographer living in a tent in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya.

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