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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Zoo History: A Wonderful Place for Our Zoo

"In my opinion zoological gardens all over the world should have as one of their main objects the establishment of breeding colonies for these rare and endangered species.  Then, if it is inevitable that the animal should become extinct in the wild state, at least we have not lost it completely.  For many years I had wanted to start a zoo with just such an object in view, and now seemed the ideal moment to begin."

- Gerald Durrell, A Zoo in My Luggage

Every zoo has a history, though in most cases it's a rather simple, formulaic one - enough animals are dumped in a place until someone decides to do something with them.  Not every zoo makes history.  To celebrate Zoo and Aquarium Month this year, I've decided to start off with the story of a zoo that has undoubtedly changed the world for the better.  What makes this all the more remarkable is that its history - which doesn't go very far back - began in the head of an eccentric young man who no one ever thought would amount to much.

Gerald Durrell has appeared before on this blog - way back, I reviewed one of the many books that he'd written over his career, A Bevy of Beasts, a narrative about his apprenticeship as a zookeeper at Whipsnade.  Zoos were always a part of Durrell's life; family legend has it that "zoo" was his first word, and some of his first memories were of visiting a zoo in India, where he was born.  After leaving Whipsnade, Durrell made his name by traveling the world, collecting animals for zoos back in England and specializing in the obscure (a man after my own heart).  Encouraged by his brother, the novelist Lawrence Durrell, he recorded his exploits in a series of highly amusing books, beginning with The Overloaded Ark, describing his first expedition, to Cameroon.  The arkload in question included drills, pangolins, dwarf crocodiles, and, perhaps the least-known animal of the region, the lemur-like angwantibo.

Despite Durrell's fondness for zoos, he quickly became disillusioned with them.  He was baffled by the inability of zoos, even some of the world's most prestigious, to successfully keep the animals that he himself was able to keep for months at a time in his bush camps.  He also felt that there was too much focus on the wrong animals - big, showy species instead of the more endangered but often overlooked ones.  His efforts to gain employment at a zoo in England were unsuccessful (even today the zoo world is full of would-be visionaries who swear that they could change the world forever if only someone would let them... I should know, I spent the last ten years as one).  Undaunted by this failure, he did - what to him seemed to be - the only logical thing left.  He decided to start his own zoo.

Now, if I were in Durrell's position, I would have found a place to establish my zoo, built enclosures, and then acquired animals.  Durrell was nothing if not unconventional, though, as zookeepers often are.  He returned from another expedition to Cameroon with his load of animals but, instead of selling them to other zoos, began to try and find a place to house them permanently.  From chimpanzees to clawed frogs, Gerald Durrell arrived in England with, to borrow the title from one of his books, a zoo in his luggage.  Some of the animals were loaned out to other zoos.  Some were housed in a local department store as sort of a "preview zoo" (their numbers included a baboon who managed to escape and run amok).  Others still were set up in the yard of Gerald's sister, Margo, which did little to endear them to the neighbors.  All the while, local council after local council turned their noses up at Durrell's zoo, to his considerable annoyance.

It was a complete fluke that Gerald Durrell met Major Hugh Fraser, proprietor of a rambling 17th century manor on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between the United Kingdom and France.  Meeting Hugh at his home for the first time, Gerald turned to his wife, Jacquie and, in Major Fraser's presence, said "Wouldn't it make a wonderful place for our zoo?"  To which the good major replied, "Are you serious?"

Major Fraser wasn't being incredulous (well, maybe a little).  It just so happened that the sprawled Les Augres Manor was getting to be too much for him to manage, and he was interested in renting it out.  Why not to a zoo?  Shortly after, the Jersey Zoo was born.

Jersey Zoo was renamed Durrell WIldlife Trust after the death of its founder, Gerald Durrell, in 1995.  To this day, it carries on its founder's dreams of devoting itself to the conservation though captive breeding and reintroduction of the rarest animals on the planet, many of which the world has largely ignored.  It operates field stations in countries around the world, from Madagascar to India, and has been very active in the training of range-country naturalists to carry on the struggle of conservation using training and equipment supplied by the Trust.  Perhaps most satisfying to Gerald Durrell would be that the conservation mindset that he advocated for in the zoo community decades ago is now embraced and championed by zoos and aquariums around the globe.  From a dream no one thought possible has come so much good for so many species around the world.

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