Durrell, Gerald Malcolm

views updated May 23 2018

Gerald Malcolm Durrell

British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Malcolm Durrell (1925–1995) devoted his life to the preservation of wild animal species and in 1958 created a wildlife preserve on the Channel Island of Jersey dedicated to scientific research and protect ing endangered species.

Calling himself a "champion of small uglies," British naturalist Gerald Durrell had a single goal: to care for and save from extinction as many species of animals as possible. Beginning his career exploring Africa and South America, he went on to organize captive-breeding programs for endangered creatures and find ways of introducing these animals back into the wild.

Advocate for Endangered Wildlife

In 1958, on the Channel Island of Jersey off the coast of England, Durrell founded the Jersey Zoological Park, which remains dedicated to supporting conservation and animal protection efforts while also engaging in scientific research. A prolific and popular author, Durrell wrote many books that reflect his love of animals, although the naturalist often admitted that his main motivation for writing was to fund his work on behalf of endangered species.

In his books and his many radio and television appearances, Durrell was an eloquent spokesman for wildlife. As quoted on the Raptor Conservation website, Durrell once commented: "Year by year, all over the world, various species of animals are being slowly but surely exterminated in their wild state, thanks directly or indirectly to the interference of mankind.… In addition … a great number of animal species … because they are small and generally of no commercial or touristic value, are not receiving adequate protection. To me the extirpation of an animal species is a criminal offence, in the same way as the destruction of anything we cannot recreate or replace, such as … a work of art by … Rembrandt or the Acropolis."

Early Love of Animals

Born in Jamshedpur, India, on January 7, 1925, Gerald Malcolm Durrell was the youngest child born to Lawrence Durrell Sr., a British civil engineer hired to help lay out and construct India's first modern bridge and railroad system, and his wife, Louisa Florence (Dixie) Durrell. The affluent Durrell household instilled a creative drive from which each of the Durrell children benefited: brother Lawrence Jr. became a noted writer, brother Leslie an artistr and sister Margot a designer.

The death of Durrell's father in 1927 forced the family to return to Bournemouth, England. Louisa Durrell traveled frequently during the 1930s, exposing her children to life in Great Britain and Europe. Durrell was educated by private teachers as his family settled temporarily in Greece, Italy, France and Switzerland, and his lessons in tedious subjects such as geography were often given out of doors in order to gain the undisciplined boy's attention.

Durrell's love of wild creatures was apparent from an early age, As he later recalled in his book A Bevy of Beasts, "at the age of two I made up my mind quite firmly and unequivocally that the only thing I wanted to do was study animals. Nothing else interested me." As a young teen, he spent five years on Corfu, a Greek island, and there developed his skills as a naturalist while accompanying family friend and scientist Theodore Stephanides on many local expeditions. He also spent many days alone among the island's tide pools and hills, searching for new creatures, studying the landscape and often bringing home new "pets"—anything from scorpions, woodlice or birds to tortoises, owls or donkeys. These frequently became part of the family much to the dismay of Durrell's sister. Sensing young Gerald's untamed nature, his older brother Lawrence encouraged Durrell to read and develop his writing by chronicling his discoveries.

Relocated to London after the start of World War II, Durrell discovered the London Zoo and in 1945 became a student keeper at the Whipsnade Zoological Society Park, a zoo located in Bedfordshire that was dedicated to the breeding and preservation of rare species, many of which were almost extinct. During his year at Whipsnade, which would later be immortalized in his book Beasts in My Belfry, he fed and groomed animals and cleaned cages and devised a system of recording the behavior of the animals he cared for. He soon began to compare his own observations with those of published research findings. The more he read the findings of biologists and naturalists, the more he realized the threatened status of many of the world's creatures.

In 1946 Durrell inherited his share of the family fortune, 3,000 pounds. Feeling that his work at the zoo was done, he decided to bring to English zoos some of the unusual creatures of the world, so that others may appreciate them. He left Bedfordshire and made the first of many trips into regions where there were many endangered species. Traveling to British-controlled Cameroon, he hiked deep into the west African rain forest and collected so many species of reptiles, birds and mammals that it required over 100 cages and crates to transport them. A second trip to the Bafut region of Cameroon followed, and in 1949 Durrell traveled to South America and hiked into the jungles of mountainous British Guiana (now Guyana).

Writing Supported Work

Durrell quickly spent his inheritance on these expeditions, and zoos were unable to compensate him. In 1951 he married Jacqueline Sonia Rasen and needed a source of regular income, which he found in writing.

Drawing on the advice of his brother Lawrence, who had made a mark as a noted poet and novelist, Durrell completed his first book, a description of his first trip to Cameroon, published in 1953 as The Overloaded Ark. Although he had not been formally schooled in writing, Durrell was a natural storyteller, and his passion for his subject was clear in every line.

The success of the book prompted a second effort, The Bafut Beagles, which took readers on Durrell's second sojourn into Cameroon, and a third, a chronicle of his South American trip titled Three Tickets to Adventure. Popular with English readers, the books were translated into several other languages.

During the remainder of his career, Durrell made many other expeditions, including trips to Argentina, Mexico, Australia and Nigeria, and also wrote several more books, including novels and children's books. He also drew on his own unconventional upbringing in his 1956 best-selling autobiography My Family and Other Animals, which was eventually adapted as a 12-part television series that aired in England and the United States in the late 1980s. However, writing was merely a means to an end; as he once admitted to an interviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, "I try to get it over with as quickly as possible.… I write for money—it provides me with the wherewithal to do the things I really like doing, which is rushing off to Mexico to catch volcano rabbits."

Established Wildlife Preserve

By the mid-1950s Durrell had made major contributions to a number of English zoos, including more than 25 new species for the London Zoo. However, he became increasingly attached to the creatures he collected, and decided to create his own zoo devoted to unusual wildlife. He hoped the zoo would educate the public about the plight facing many species. Although he wanted to locate his zoo in England, local zoning and land-use restrictions made the task impossible.

With a promised advance of 25,000 pounds from his publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis, and while searching for the perfect location, he began accumulating animals, storing creatures at his mother's home until the zoo was completed. Fortunately for Louisa Durrell, her son found 35 acres on the tiny island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, British territory located off the coast of northwestern France. The zoo headquarters was located in a large 16th-century house located on the property.

Despite the relative remoteness of its location, the Jersey Zoological Park was everything Durrell hoped it would be. As word spread after it opened in 1958, visitors became more frequent, and by 2000 more than 200,000 people were visiting the zoo each year. In 1963 Durrell founded the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust to operate the zoo and oversee efforts dedicated to aiding threatened wildlife. In 1973 he expanded his efforts still further, creating the Wild-life Preservation Trust International, headquartered in Philadelphia.

Durrell remained active as a naturalist for the remainder of his life. After a divorce from Rasen in 1979, he married American zoologist and conservationist Lee Wilson McGeorge. Together they worked to raise threatened creatures in captivity and release them back into the wild to reinforce existing populations. In addition, his involvement in animal care and treatment standards improved the way creatures were treated while in captivity.

Goodbye to Wilderness

In 1990 Durrell set out on his final expedition in search of unique species, making a four-month trip to Madagascar. There he captured a rare species of lemur, the aye-aye. The trip, on which Durrell was accompanied by his wife and a film crew from BBC-TV, resulted in the 1993 book The Aye-Aye and I: A Rescue Expedition in Madagascar, as well as an award-winning television film titled The Island of the Aye-Aye. By then Durrell had become a fixture on British nature programming. His shows, such as The Amateur Naturalist, which focused on wildlife in Malayasia, Australia and New Zealand, resulted in the books How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist and The Drunken Forest.

With over 30 best-selling books to his credit, Durrell was both a beloved author and a respected naturalist. He was a member of the Royal Geographical Society, the Fauna Preservation Society, the American Zoo-parks Association, and the Zoological Society of London. Among many honors he received during his lifetime were honorary degrees from Yale University, the University of Kent, and the University of Durham, and he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Despite his many successes, Durrell's efforts to alter the course of animal evolution were sometimes controversial. He also came to see the backlash from his efforts. While his book recounting his youth in Greece, My Family and Other Animals, provided much-needed funds to operate his island wildlife refuge, its popularity also resulted in an increase of visitors to Corfu, changing forever the character of that island paradise. He also realized that by entering remote wilderness regions he was altering them forever. However, his contributions far outweighed any negative effects; as Robert Rattner noted in International Wildlife, Durrell "was a pioneer in captive breeding of endangered wildlife at a time when few zoos even gave the idea lip service." Following a liver transplant, Durrell died on January 30, 1995, at age seventy, in St. Helier on the Chanel Islands, leaving his wife, Lee, to continue his work at the renamed Durrell Conservation Trust.


Durrell, Gerald, A Bevy of Beasts, Simon & Schuster, 1973.

—, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, Viking, 1969.

—, The Garden of the Gods, Collins, 1978, published as Fauna and Family, Simon & Schuster, 1979.

—, My Family and Other Animals, Hart-Davies, 1959.

Hughes, David, Himself and Other Animals: A Portrait of Gerald Durrell, Hutchinson, 1997.


Geographical, January 2002.

International Wildlife, July–August 1988.

Smithsonian, August 1993.

Spectator, July 6, 1956; October 28, 1960; December 11, 1976.


Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust,http://www.durrellwildife.org/ (December 6, 2003).

Raptor Conservation,http://www.raptor.uk/com/Features (December 6, 2003).

Durrell, Gerald Malcolm

views updated Jun 11 2018

Durrell, Gerald Malcolm (1925–95) British naturalist and author, b. India. Brother of Lawrence Durrell, his humorous and stylish novels include My Family and Other Animals (1956) and A Zoo in My Luggage (1960). Other works include Beasts in the Belfry (1973) and The Aye-Aye and I (1992).