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Obituary: George Cansdale

Biddy Baxter
Thursday 26 August 1993 23:02 BST

George Soper Cansdale, zoologist and broadcaster: born Brentwoood, Essex 29 November 1909; Colonial Forest Service, Gold Coast 1934-48; Superintendent, Zoological Society of London 1948-53; married 1940 Margaret Williamson (died 1992; two sons); died Great Chesterford, Essex 24 August 1993.

FOR ANY child watching Blue Peter during the Sixties, Seventies and most of the Eighties, George Cansdale was television's zoo man - the large, avuncular studio guest who would show the presenters how to bath six-foot pythons, produce bush-babies from his trouser pockets and tarantulas out of his turn-ups.

Children loved him because he was quirky, authoritative and uncondescending. Presenters from Valerie Singleton and John Noakes to Sarah Greene, Simon Groom and Peter Duncan admired him as an expert and a true professional. Cansdale was guaranteed to provide riveting viewing. If it crawled, slithered, flew, climbed or swam, he would bring it to the studio. Often his fingers were ominously covered with bloody bits of Elastoplast - he was intrepid when it came to handling the most dangerous animal and could never quite understand when a presenter flinched as a snake lunged or an orang-utan bared its teeth.

Generations of directors were kept on their toes because Cansdale, whose knowledge was vast, rarely did the same thing in the same order twice. During the 'live' transmissions there would be agonised cries: 'He's put the rat in the other pocket', or 'The skink's going up his trousers instead of down his sleeve]' The production team may have been reduced to jelly, but Cansdale remained imperturbable. Just what you would expect from a man who had flown from Singapore to London with poisonous snakes in his pyjamas. 'They had to be kept warm, they were perfectly safe in my hand baggage,' he pointed out.

George Cansdale was born in 1909 in Brentwood, Essex. The son of a clerk in a City shipping office, he won a scholarship to Brentwood School. His chief interest as a boy was ornithology, but as a student at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, reading for a forestry degree, he broadened his outlook and spent an extra couple of years doing his B Sc, followed by training for the Colonial Service.

In 1934, he was appointed Forest Officer for the Gold Coast, which was where he started collecting animals. It happened almost by chance. A friend working for Paignton Zoo begged him to bring home as many specimens as he could, on his next leave. Because his forestry work was so time-consuming, Cansdale, who was fluent in Tui, one of the main languages, enlisted the help of the local children he knew at the big government school on his station. He improvised travelling boxes from old petrol tins and their wooden containers and the 80 specimens included squirrels, hornbills, owls, touracos and snakes. This was when he had what he later described as his only 'serious' accident with animals - the first poisonous snake he had ever handled alive.

A boy brought him a small black snake held in the split end of a stick - not more than a third of a metre long and thinner than a finger. Although Cansdale picked it up correctly, behind the head, it bit the top of his left index finger. Unfortunately for him it was a burrowing viper - one of the very few snakes that cannot be picked up by hand as its lengthy fangs can strike however it is held.

In spite of his cutting the bite, letting it bleed and applying a tourniquet, by nightfall the fingertip had turned grey. Gradually it rotted off and the finger healed - nearly half an inch short. Cansdale felt he had had a lucky escape and it certainly didn't put him off collecting. He built up his own small zoos at his various jungle stations and they were so popular with the local inhabitants he had to fix regular opening hours. Whole classes of small children used to visit from schools in the towns too; most of them were seeing forest creatures alive for the first time in their lives.

Cansdale trained teams of boys to help him collect live specimens for zoos abroad and also to prepare skins for museums. They recorded many 'firsts' for West Africa, including two new species, a bat and a flying squirrel, eight snakes not previously recorded for the Gold Coast, and a huge black cobra found in a heap of rubbish in the office yard 8ft 8in long - nearly a foot longer than the previous best for West Africa. As well as supplying London Zoo he was able to offer animals to the Dublin and Edinburgh Zoos when they were restocking after the Second World War.

In 1940, George Cansdale married Margaret Williamson, who had been a fellow-student at Oxford, and thus began a perfect partnership that lasted almost 52 years. They first met in 1933 and as well as a mutual interest in wildlife they were both committed Christians. Sheila led a Bible study group for 30 years after returning to the UK and from 1950 to 1971 George was Churchwarden of All Souls' Langham Place. A Vice-President of the evangelical Crusaders Union, he spoke frequently at Crusader classes, churches and other Christian groups - often accompanied by Percy and Polly, his pet python and bush-baby.

It was while he was home on leave in 1947 that George Cansdale was headhunted by the Zoological Society of London. He was asked if he would take over as Superintendent from Dr Gwynne Vevers, who was about to retire. It was an inspired choice, for, in addition to his lifelong study of animals, as a Forest Officer Cansdale had added accounting, publicity, staff management, building, roadmaking and the care of trees to his skills. He held this post for five years from May 1948, but they were far from happy ones. He was quick to discover a hornet's nest of mismanagement and dishonesty and his efforts to stop the malpractices met with robust opposition from nearly all quarters.

His detective work began with the turnstile staff. He soon realised their style of living was vastly above their weekly wage packets. One man had a palatial house in Bedford and would take taxis to and from the station to the zoo. Cansdale estimated at least 10 per cent of London Zoo's income was being fiddled away by the turnstile cheats. When he changed the system there was an uproar.

On querying bills for the animals' food he discovered most of the keepers thought taking home bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables a legitimate perk. One man even had a profitable line in selling off the zoo's bedding- out plants - he supplied the best fuchsias in Camden and made a considerable income.

One of Cansdale's most extraordinary pieces of detection happened quite by chance. He was very much a 'hands on' Superintendent, spending just as much time out and about in the zoo as in his office. Late one night he decided to visit the reptile house. It was pitch dark and when he switched on the light he discovered the whole floor area obliterated by a seething mass of cockroaches. Appalled by this lack of hygiene he ordered an immediate de-infestation. To his amazement the keepers objected to any kind of clean-up. 'Oh well,' he was eventually told by the one security officer who was on his side, 'they're selling 'em for sixpence each]' The reptile house at London Zoo had been turned into a very lucrative cockroach breeding centre.

'There was no support from the Duke of Devonshire, President of the Council,' Cansdale said ruefully, years later. 'They didn't want a fuss.' And the Council took a time- honoured easy way out, by abolishing the post of Superintendent in 1953. Greatly to his credit, Cansdale was not bitter about his shabby treatment. But he was distressed that dishonesty had won the day and saddened that one of the world's most prestigious zoos appeared doomed to remain inefficiently managed.

It was during his years as Superintendent that Cansdale began to broadcast, for television, from the BBC's Alexandra Palace studios and later Lime Grove: he was a household name in the Fifties long before his Blue Peter appearances. His series of animal programmes included Popular Animal Fallacies, Heads, Tails and Feet, Looking at Animals and All About Animals. These last two series won him the Royal Television Society's Silver Medal in 1952. There were outside broadcasts from the zoo itself (Wynford Vaughan Thomas was bitten by a large Indian gecko, during a relay from the reptile house.) For radio too, Cansdale was a regular contributor to Children's Hour.

In the 1990s, with its plethora of wildlife programmes offered by all channels, this may seem unremarkable, but they all owe a debt to George Cansdale. He was a pioneer of scientific broadcasting and a tribute to his work in this field was paid by Sir David Attenborough in 1992, in his presidential address at the AGM of the British Association. 'A lot of thinking people, in those early days, took a fairly lofty view of television, regarding it as so populist as to be beneath their notice.' But natural history programmes started off with a thoroughly scientific base and Attenborough said it was thanks to Cansdale's bringing animals to the studios from London Zoo 'that a great many people, young and old, acquired their first insights into taxonomy and comparative anatomy from what he said. He spoke good natural science.'

In addition to broadcasting, Cansdale lectured and wrote many books. Early titles included Animals of West Africa (1946), Animals and Man (1952), George Cansdale's Zoo Book (1953), Belinda the Bushbaby (written with Sheila, 1953), Reptiles of West Africa (1955) and Behind the Scenes at a Zoo (1965). West African Snakes published in 1961, remains the standard work on the subject and was reprinted in 1992. Animals of Bible Lands (1965) entailed a study of every animal name in the Bible's Hebrew and Greek texts from the 'moving creature' of Genesis I to the figurative 'dogs' of Revelation 22. Cansdale described it as 'a fascinating task', but he was the first writer for over a century to attempt such a colossal project. His wife was an invaluable ally in this enterprise and in 1960 they spent a month wandering through the Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel and toured Israel again in 1962.

Cansdale's energy and versatility were legendary. In the 1960s he became Director of Morecambe's Marine Land, Chessington Zoo and Natureland in Skegness. It was whilst he was with Natureland that he pioneered a way of obtaining clean seawater by drawing it through the sand in the beach. Realising this idea could be adapted to provide clean water in developing countries, he set up SWF Filtration Ltd with his younger son, Richard, to make the necessary filters. The company won a World Business Award (the IBM Award for Sustainable Development) in 1990.

Throughout his career as a scientist, broadcaster, writer, lecturer and inventor Cansdale always empathised with and had time for children. His cottage in Essex became a magnet for the village children as well as his much-loved grandchildren. The treat was accompanying Cansdale to the Blue Peter studio - one or sometimes two at a time, so there was a lengthy waiting list and Cansdale administered a rota with typical impartiality. Nine was the magic age when he allowed his young friends to join him and assorted wildlife and a boot-full of garden produce on the journey to Television Centre. 'Mr Cansdale, I'm nine next month - can I go with you, please' was the constant cry.

Cansdale would always telephone in advance, and invariably the message would be the same. 'I'll come to the office first, I've a basket of windfalls - a load of beetroot and flowers. Oh yes, and there's some chutney and marmalade for you.' And a cornucopia of goodies would appear - enough for every member of the production team. There was never a more generous or warm-hearted contributor or one who produced more delicious jams and chutneys.

There was no so-called 'retirement' - even when an unlucky fall in 1991 resulted in a badly fractured femur, hospitalisation and a long and painful convalescence. His letter to the Telegraph in June of that year contributed to the debate on the current London Zoo controversy. He bitterly disagreed with the Grade I listings of the Penguin Pool and the Gorilla House - pointing out they were not designed with animals in mind. He also criticised the Snowdon Aviary and the Elephant House - in his eyes neither of them merited retention.

Cansdale triumphed over many vicissitudes, including the loss of part of his foot in the early Eighties as a result of skin cancer from his years in the tropics. But the cruellest blow of his whole life was the death, in March last year, of his beloved Sheila. Never in robust health, she had suffered from various illnesses for many years. But for the last two years of her life she was nursed devotedly by George.

He continued to live life to the full - despite problems with his broken femur that put a stop to his driving. Neighbours and his sons David and Richard and their wives, to whom George was devoted, rallied round but he was resolutely independent - accepting help with the garden but continuing with his chutney-making and his support for Inter-Care, a charity collecting medical items for African Mission hospitals. He regularly accumulated monthly parcels worth pounds 200 - typicaly thinking of others, rather than himself, to the very end.

(Photograph omitted)

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