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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Happy Birthday, Gerald Durrell

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 7, 2011

I’m not sure he ever discovered a new species, since he was mainly concerned with preserving endangered ones.  But Gerald Durrell (born today, 7 Jan 1925, died 30 Jan 1995) inspired my interest in species with his masterpiece  My Family And Other Animals,  the classic memoir of his childhood years on Corfu. If you have not read it, run out and do so now.  It will make you happy.

As David Attenborough put it in a 1995 memorial service, “Gerald Durrell was magic.”   Unblemished by formal education, undaunted by profound alcoholism, Durrell wrote 37 books.  He reached millions of television viewers with his unlikely blend of wicked humor and passionate conservation.   He founded a zoo on Jersey in the Channel Islands, now widely regarded as one of the world’s best.  He championed the captive breeding of endangered species, when most zoos regarded the idea as anathema.  And he saved whole species from extinction.  He did it, moreover, with panache and self-deprecation.  Awarded the Order of the British Empire, he modestly averred that the O.B.E. stood for”other buggers’ efforts.” And on the brink of death, at the age of 70, he summed up his own contribution this way:  “Life is like a superlative meal, and the world is the maitre d’hotel.  What I’m doing is the equivalent of leaving a reasonable tip.

Part of Durrell’s charm as a writer was his seamless mingling of human and animal worlds.  He had a knack for anthropomorphizing animals and picking out their individual personalities.  On buying a chimp named Chumley (short for Cholmondeley St. John) from a hunter in the Cameroon, he wrote:  “When the bargain had been struck and the filthy lucre had changed hands, this simian aristocrat took my hand condescendingly and walked into our living room, peering about him with an ill-concealed disgust, like a duke visiting the kitchen of a sick retainer, determined to be democratic however unsavoury the task.”

But Durrell was equally fearless about animalizing his anthropoids, including humans of all ranks.   Once,  taking Princess Anne on a tour of the Jersey Zoo, he confronted a male mandrill in full sexual display, its bottom like “a newly painted and violently patriotic lavatory seat,” all blue on the outer rim, and “virulent sunset scarlet” within.   “Wonderful animal, ma’am,” Durrell said to the Princess, and then added, “Wouldn’t you like to have a behind like that?” Such was Durrell’s magic that he didn’t merely get away it, but got Princess Anne to become a patron of the zoo.

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