I first became aware of Gerald Durrell when someone gave me a copy of one of his books. After reading that book, My Family and Other Animals, I learned that Gerald Durrell had started a ‘zoo’ in Jersey, Channel Islands. As I would find out later, through my own first-hand experience, it was – and still is – so much more than a ‘zoo’.
My Family and Other Animals, was the book that catapulted Gerald Durrell into the annuls of notable author fame. It not only made the bestseller list, but it also funded his next and most significant wildlife collecting expedition.
Gerald Durrell spent three years working at Whipsnade Zoo before leaving to join three wildlife collecting expeditions. He was disillusioned with the way zoos were being run at that time, believing they should be reserves to regenerate endangered species, which made him think about founding his own zoo.
He started writing books to fund his expeditions, but the publication of My Family and Other Animals in 1956 funded his 1957 trip to the Cameroons, when he collected the animals that would form the core of the Jersey Zoo Park, which opened on 26th March 1959. Later it became the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (JWPT), and it is now The Durrell Wildlife Park, widely and appropriately known, as Durrell.
I went to live in Jersey in 1981, and there was only one place I wanted to work. I am not a zoologist so, before I arrived on the island, I wrote to JWPT, as it was then, in the hope they might have a vacancy for someone to work in their offices. They didn’t, so when I first started working in Jersey, I worked for one of the veterinary practices, who took me on because my last job in the UK was working for the George Veterinary Group in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.
I kept writing to the JWPT and, finally, my persistence paid off when I landed, what I now know was my dream job, the role of secretary to the Zoological Director who, at that time, was Jeremy Mallinson.
Jeremy Mallinson was a close personal friend of Gerald Durrell’s and was with him from the start in 1959. He was rarely in the office, often overseeing the Trust’s breeding programs in Madagascar or following up on his Okovango Adventures. As a passionate conversationist, it was no surprise when he received an OBE for ‘services rendered unto conservation’ in 1997′. He may have retired in 2002, but not his passion for saving endangered species from extinction. He is an author, as well as an extraordinarily talented pianist. Typing up his handwritten notes for various publications was a pleasure.
As far as my working life was concerned, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Not only was I working for a world-renown organisation, but its headquarters at Les Augrès Manor is in the heart of the lush landscape of the wildlife park. What a place to spend your working day! I made the best of any plausible excuse to pop out into the grounds and often took a little more time than I needed to as I sauntered past the gorilla and orang-utan enclosures, as well as one of Jeremy Malllinson’s favourites, the Golden Lion Tamarin. Just some of the many animals close to my heart.
It was hard not to have favourites but, Jambo, the silverback Lowland gorilla, was an exception. He shot to fame in 1986 when he proved to the world that he was a gentle giant after a five-year-old boy fell into the gorilla pit.
Gerald Durrell, and his second wife, Lee, despite having a permanent home elsewhere, visited regularly. They had an apartment upstairs at Les Augrès Manor, and sometimes, they would invite all staff ‘upstairs’ to drink champagne. By that time he was a recognised TV presenter, but he was also a brilliant raconteur. He had the unique ability to silence his packed sitting room at Les Augrès Manor when he started to pluck stories of his adventures off the top of his head.
While working there, I went on holiday to South Africa and spent the first few days on safari. Having the opportunity to see animals in the wild state for the first time was hugely exciting as was visualising the animals in the various breeding programmes in Jersey being reintroduced into their natural habitats.
I learned a great deal about wildlife conservation during the six years in my dream job and there were many success stories, and this is one of them. Porcula salvania, the Pigmy Hog. The late William Oliver asked me to type up hundreds of pages, from his unwieldy hand-written notes, on his extensive research into this mini Himalayan hog. I even bought my first home computer – it was second hand and a tank of a thing, but it did the job – to cope with the volumes of the life and times of the little Pigmy Hog.
Thanks to William Oliver and the breeding programme at Durrell over the years, the world’s smallest and rarest pig was reintroduced into Assam’s Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in 2008, where it continues to thrive.
Despite weatherman Michael Fish’s assurances that it wasn’t going to happen, during the night of the 15th and the early morning of 16th October 1987, the Great Storm hit the UK and the Channel Islands. It was a storm of horrific intensity.
I went into work first thing on that Saturday morning to help in any way I could and burst into tears. At first glance, the carefully landscaped park – another of Jeremy Mallison’s passionate projects – which included plantings from all over the world – resembled a war zone after the ravagings of the Great Storm. Majestic mature trees lay on the ground, their roots exposed, having been ripped out of the earth by hurricane-force winds with gusts of up to 135 mph, smashing everything in their path as they fell. Despite the devastation and initial fears for the precious animal collection, only one Crowned Crane perished.
Apart from the aftermath of the Great Storm, working at Durrell was a joy from beginning to end. I was proud of my role within this wonderful charitable organisation. Walking into work with the sounds of Madagascar ringing in my ears was an uplifting experience, as was exchanging banter with Piccolo the Capuchin monkey, who lived at the Trust for thirty-seven years, and spent some of his days entertaining everybody in the main office.
Above all, I met some exceptional people during my time there, three of whom I have mentioned here, but there were so many others. People who enhanced and enriched my life experience, who were all passionate about one thing. The regeneration of endangered species and releasing them back into the wild.
Last week, I took a trip down memory lane and visited Durrell. I hadn’t been for a while, and I wanted to reaffirm my support, especially as the lean COVID-19 months hit this charitable organisation hard. Walking past Les Augres Manor towards the end of our visit, I took a cheeky detour down a narrow passageway at the side of the house which leads to the rear entrance of my old office. I bottled out of looking through the window but, while beating a hasty retreat, I walked straight into a Dr Lesley Dickie, Durrell’s Executive Officer. Embarrassed, I gave a garbled explanation as to why I was skulking around. Her response? To ask me in for the guided tour of the office space, which has changed somewhat since I left in 1988! But, it still felt like I was ‘coming home’ to a somewhere that, for a few years, was a huge part of my life, and will always be the ark in my heart.