"There are certain exquisite moments in life which should be enjoyed to the full, for, unfortunately, they are rare. I certainly made the most of this one, for both Daniel and the hunter thought I had gone mad. I executed a war dance in the middle of the road, I whooped so loudly in my excitement that I sent all the hornbills for miles around honking into the forest. I slapped the hunter on the back, I slapped Daniel on the back, and I would, if I could have managed it, slapped myself on the back. After all those months of searching and failure I held a real live Angwantibo in my hands, and delight at the thought went to my head like wine"
When Gerald Durrell, the young zookeeper whose exploits at Whipsnade were recounted in A Bevy of Beasts, received his coming-of-age inheritance from his late father's estate, he knew just what to do with it. Resigning his job, he found himself a like-minded companion (bird enthusiast John Yealland) and set out to fulfill his lifelong dream of collecting animals for zoos. Over the next several decades, Durrell would collect extensively in Africa and South America, eventually establishing his own zoo on Jersey Island.
The Overloaded Ark, the first of many books that Durrell would write over the years (at the urging of his big brother, the famous novelist Lawrence Durrell), is the tale of Gerald's first collecting expedition, to the (then) British colony of Cameroon in West Africa. In it, Durrell describes his quest to capture (and, sometimes posing a greater challenge, keep alive) some of the rarest, most mysterious animals on the continent, many of which I freely admit that I had never heard of before first opening the book. They include the giant otter shrew, the giant pouched rat, and - Durrell's Holy Grail, bordering on obsession - the angwantibo, a nocturnal, lemur-like primate that at the time was almost completely unknown to scientists. There are none of the swashbuckling bravado tales that pepper Frank Buck's animal collecting books, where the protagonists barely escapes a savage mauling every five minutes. Instead, the stories are told by a very self-deprecating man, looking back at the folly of youth, at adventures with animals that he truly loved.
I've always been a big fan of Durrell, his writings, and his work... but there are some aspects which don't age well. In these days, animal collecting leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many conservationists - the thought of pulling animals out of the wild en mass - and it is true that some of the animals that Durrell collects succumb due to his inability to figure out how to care for them. He collects many pangolins, for instance, a group of animals that even today are considered very challenging to maintain in a zoological setting. One has to wonder how many animals never even reached him, succumbing to the stress of capture or killed during capture attempts, either by Durrell or his native assistants.
And there's the other thing...
Durrell may acknowledge it, but he is still writing about Africans from quite a position of privilege - a young white man, no one particular special, but still perfectly comfortable with all of the Cameroon natives in the district calling him "Masa" (Durrell writes much of the dialogue in the pidgin used throughout most of the colonial-era tropics). He essentially was given the mien of lord and master of the jungle, a role that - at least as he tells it - none of the natives felt inclined to question. One gets the sense that he was certainly fond of his Cameroonian helpers, but there is a certain air of condescension that colors the book (of course, when you read a lot of his other writings, you realize that he's just as quick to turn that barbed wit on Europeans and Americans as well).
Knowing and acknowledging both of these relics of the age in which the book was written, it's still perfectly possible to enjoy the story. Today, much of the language coming from conservationists and zoos is doom and gloom - we're losing this species and that habitat and the oceans are rising and we're all going to die. It's important to be aware of the dangers that our planet faces and to be prepared to meet them head on.
Sometimes, however, it just helps to lose yourself in an adventure in nature, when everything seemed new and unspoiled, the jungle seemed to go on forever, and you never knew what wonderful new animal you were going to find just around the next bend in the trail.
The Overloaded Ark at Amazon.com