Gerald "Gerry" Malcolm Durrell (7 January 1925 – 30 January 1995) was a naturalist, zookeeper, author, and television presenter, most famous for founding what is now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey and for writing a number of books based on his animal-collecting and conservation expeditions. He was the brother of Lawrence Durrell.
- Right in the Heart of the African Jungle a small white man lives. Now there is one extraordinary fact about him that he is the friend of all animals.
- Written by Durrell at age ten (1935), from Gerald Durrell: An Authorized Biography by Douglas Botting (1999), p. 43, ISBN 0-786-70655-4
- I have seen a thousand sunsets and sunrises, on land where it floods forest and mountains with honey coloured light, at sea where it rises and sets like a blood orange in a multicoloured nest of cloud, slipping in and out of the vast ocean. I have seen a thousand moons: harvest moons like gold coins, winter moons as white as ice chips, new moons like baby swans’ feathers.
I have seen seas as smooth as if painted, coloured like shot silk or blue as a kingfisher or transparent as glass or black and crumpled with foam, moving ponderously and murderously. … I have known silence: the cold earthy silence at the bottom of a newly dug well; the implacable stony silence of a deep cave; the hot, drugged midday silence when everything is hypnotised and stilled into silence by the eye of the sun; the silence when great music ends.
I have heard summer cicadas cry so that the sound seems stitched into your bones. … I have seen hummingbirds flashing like opals round a tree of scarlet blooms, humming like a top. I have seen flying fish, skittering like quicksilver across the blue waves, drawing silver lines on the surface with their tails. I have seen Spoonbills fling home to roost like a scarlet banner across the sky. I have seen Whales, black as tar, cushioned on a cornflower blue sea, creating a Versailles of fountain with their breath. I have watched butterflies emerge and sit, trembling, while the sun irons their winds smooth. I have watched Tigers, like flames, mating in the long grass. I have been dive-bombed by an angry Raven, black and glossy as the Devil’s hoof. I have lain in water warm as milk, soft as silk, while around me played a host of Dolphins. I have met a thousand animals and seen a thousand wonderful things… but —
All this I did without you. This was my loss.
All this I want to do with you. This will be my gain.
All this I would gladly have forgone for the sake of one minute of your company, for your laugh, your voice, your eyes, hair, lips, body, and above all for your sweet, ever surprising mind which is an enchanting quarry in which it is my privilege to delve.
- Letter to his fiancée Lee, (31 July 1978), published in Gerald Durrell: An Authorized Biography by Douglas Botting (1999)
- There is no first world and third world. There is only one world, for all of us to live and delight in.
- If naturalists go to heaven (about which there is considerable ecclesiastical doubt), I hope that I will be furnished with a troop of kakapo to amuse me in the evening instead of television.
- Introduction to Quest for the Kakapo (1989) by David Butler, p. 6
- A sparrow can be as interesting as a bird of paradise, the behaviour of a mouse as interesting as that of a tiger. Our planet is beautifully intricate, brimming over with enigmas to be solved and riddles to be unravelled.
Many people think that conservation is just about saving fluffy animals – what they don’t realise is that we’re trying to prevent the human race from committing suicide … We have declared war on the biological world, the world that supports us … At the moment the human race is in the position of a man sawing off the tree branch he is sitting on.
Look at it this way. Anyone who has got any pleasure at all from living should try to put something back. Life is like a superlative meal and the world is the maître d'hôtel. What I am doing is the equivalent of leaving a reasonable tip. … I'm glad to be giving something back because I've been so extraordinarily lucky and had such great pleasure from it.
My Family and Other Animals (1956)
- Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival.
The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination. Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy-green, cracked and bubbled in places. The garden, surrounded by tall fuschia hedges, had the flower beds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake's head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shape of stars, half-moons, triangles, and circles all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild. Roses dropped petals that seemed as big and smooth as saucers, flame-red, moon-white, glossy, and unwrinkled; marigolds like broods of shaggy suns stood watching their parent's progress through the sky. In the low growth the pansies pushed their velvety, innocent faces through the leaves, and the violets drooped sorrowfully under their heart-shaped leaves. The bougainvillaea that sprawled luxuriously over the tiny iron balcony was hung, as though for a carnival, with its lantern-shaped magenta flowers. In the darkness of the fuschia-hedge a thousand ballerina-like blooms quivered expectantly. The warm air was thick with the scent of a hundred dying flowers, and full of the gentle, soothing whisper and murmur of insects.
- Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child's transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.
- I said I liked being half-educated; you were so much more surprised at everything when you were ignorant.
- We all travelled light, taking with us only what we considered to be the bare essentials of life. When we opened our luggage for Customs inspection, the contents of our bags were a fair indication of character and interests. Thus Margo's luggage contained a multitude of diaphanous garments, three books on slimming, and a regiment of small bottles each containing some elixir guaranteed to cure acne. Leslie's cases held a couple of roll-top pullovers and a pair of trousers which were wrapped around two revolvers, an air-pistol, a book called Be Your Own Gunsmith, and a large bottle of oil that leaked. Larry was accompanied by two trunks of books and a brief case containing his clothes. Mother's luggage was sensibly divided between clothes and various volumes on cooking and gardening. I travelled with only those items that I thought necessary to relieve the tedium of a long journey: four books on natural history, a butterfly net, a dog, and a jam jar full of caterpillars all in imminent danger of turning into chrysalids. Thus, by our standards, fully equipped, we left the clammy shores of England.
- On the family's move from England to Corfu
Encounters with Animals (1958)
- There would be a dreadful outcry if anyone suggested obliterating, say, the Tower of London, and quite rightly so; yet a unique and wonderful species of animal which has taken hundreds of thousands of years to develop to the stage we see today, can be snuffed out like a candle without more than a handful of people raising a finger or a voice in protest. So, until we consider animal life to be worthy of the consideration and reverence we bestow upon old books and pictures and historic monuments, there will always be the animal refugee living a precarious life on the edge of extermination, dependent for existence on the charity of a few human beings.
Two in the Bush (1966)
- Firstly what does conservation mean? It is not merely the saving from extinction of such species as the Notornis, the Leadbetters Possum or the Leathery Turtle; this is important work but it is only part of the problem. You cannot begin to preserve any species of animal unless you preserve the habitat in which it dwells. Disturb or destroy that habitat and you will exterminate the species as surely as if you had shot it. So conservation means that you have to preserve forest and grassland, river and lake, even the sea itself. This is not only vital for the preservation of animal life generally, but for the future existence of man himself — a point that seems to escape many people.
- We have inherited an incredibly beautiful and complex garden, but the trouble is that we have been appallingly bad gardeners. We have not bothered to acquaint ourselves with the simplest principles of gardening. By neglecting our garden, we are storing up for ourselves, in the not very distant future, a world catastrophe as bad as any atomic war, and we are doing it with all the bland complacency of an idiot child chopping up a Rembrandt with a pair of scissors. We go on, year after year, all over the world, creating dust bowls and erosion, cutting down forests and overgrazing our grasslands, polluting one of our most vital commodities — water — with industrial filth and all the time we are breeding with the ferocity of the Brown Rat, and wondering why there is not enough food to go round. We now stand so aloof from nature that we think we are God. This has always been a dangerous supposition.
- The attitude of the average person to the world they live in is completely selfish. When I take people round to see my animals, one of the first questions they ask (unless the animal is cute and appealing) is, "what use is it?" by which they mean, "what use is it to them?" To this one can reply "What use is the Acropolis?" Does a creature have to be of direct material use to mankind in order to exist? By and large, by asking the question "what use is it?" you are asking the animal to justify its existence without having justified your own.
Rosie Is My Relative (1968)
- An immensely tall, angular figure … His gown hung round him in long folds like the wings of a bat, and his wig was perched slightly askew over a lantern jawed face with a blue chin, soulful spaniel-brown eyes and a turned-down mouth like a slit. But for his garb, you would have said that he was a dyspeptic undertaker in a town where nobody ever died.
- His pen squeaking like a demented wren as he wrote copious notes.
The Stationary Ark (1976)
- The purpose of keeping any collection of wild animals in confinement should be threefold; first, to conduct as complete as possible a biological study of every species, especially those aspects which are too difficult or too costly to study in the wild and which may help in the preservation of that species in its natural habitat; second, to aid severely endangered species by setting up, under ideal conditions, protected breeding groups and, eventually, a reintroduction programme, so helping to ensure their future survival; thirdly, by the display and explanation of this work to the public, to persuade people of the vital necessity and urgency for the overall conservation of nature.
- You are not necessarily depriving him of his liberty, for territory is a form of natural cage and the word "liberty" does not have the same connotation for an animal as it does for a chest-beating liberal homo sapiens, who can afford the luxury of abstract ideas. What you are, in fact, doing is much more important, you are taking away his territory, so you must take great care to provide him with an adequate substitute, or you will get a bored, sick or dead animal on your hands.
The thing that turns a cage into a territory may be something quite slight, but it need not be size. It might be the shape of the cage, the number of branches or the lack of them, the absence or presence of a pond, a patch of sand, a chunk of log, which could make all the difference. Such a detail, trivial to the uninformed visitor, can help the animal consider this area his territory, rather than simply a place where he ekes out his existence. As I say it is not necessarily size which is of prime importance. This is where people who criticise zoos go wrong, for they generally have little idea what circumscribed lives most animals lead.
The Garden of the Gods (1978)
- "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I present the famous escape artists, Krafty Kralefsky and his partner, Slithery Stephanides."
"Dear God," said Larry, "who thought of those names?" "Need you ask?" said Leslie; "Theodore. Kralefsky wanted to call the act 'The Mysterious Escapologist Illusionists' but Margo couldn't be guaranteed to say it properly." "One must be thankful for small mercies," said Larry.
- "Air! Air!" croaked Kralefsky, "Give me air!"
"Interesting," said Colonel Ribbindane. "Saw a pygmy like that once in the Congo... been trapped in an elephant’s stomach. The elephant is the largest African quadruped.."
"Do get him out," said Mother agitatedly. "Get some brandy."
"Fan him! Blow on him!" shrilled Margo, and burst into tears. "He’s dying, he’s dying, and he never finished his trick."
- On a magic trick shown by family friends
The Mockery Bird (1981)
- The Mockery Bird regarded him with a roguish eye, head on one side, and took a few slow steps into the clearing. With its head on one side and its foot tentatively raised, it seemed like some sort of lanky, avian dancing master. It stepped forward among the guava stems with a mincing delicacy and then shuffled its wings like someone shuffling a pack of cards. He noticed that it had very long eyelashes which it raised and lowered over its large gaily-sparkling eyes. … There was another complicated rustle and flurry in the undergrowth and then, projected into the clearing by its own nervous eagerness, came a female Mockery Bird making strange, peeting noises, which became a soothing babble when she caught sight of the male. She went up to her mate and briefly preened his throat feathers as an over-zealous wife will straighten the tie of her consort. … Here in front of him, cossetting each other, were two birds which were thought to be extinct.
How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist (1984)
- The island lies like a strange, misshapen dagger in the blue Ionian Sea, midway along the Greek and Albanian coastlines.
In the past, it has fallen into the hands of a dozen different nations, from all of which it has absorbed what it found good and rejected the rest, thus keeping its individuality. Unlike so many parts of Greece, it is green and lush, for when it was part of the Venetian empire they used it as their oil store, planting thousands of olive trees, so that now the bulk of the island is shaded by these carunculated giants with their wigs of silvery-green leaves. Between them run the admonishing fingers of black-green cypress, many planted in groves as dowries. All this creates a mystical landscape, bathed in sharp brittle sunlight, orchestrated by the knife-grinder song of the cicadas, framed in the blue, still sea. Of all the wonderful and fascinating parts of the planet I have been privileged to visit, Corfu is the nearest approach to home for me, since it was here, nurtured in sunlight, that my fascination for the living world around me came to fruition.
- To say that Gannet City was busy would be an understatement. New York in the rush-hour would appear immobile in comparison. There were gannets incubating, feeding chicks, flirting, mating, preening and launching themselves into the air in effortless flight on their six-foot wings. With their creamy- white bodies, wing-tips black as jet and their orange-coloured nape and head they were impressive and immensely handsome.
- Presently, however, we came to a small clearing and there, squatting at the mouth of its burrow was the musician responsible for the ringing, flute-like cry — a fat ground squirrel, wearing a tasteful suit of rust-red and grey fur. He sat as upright as a guardsman at the entrance to his home and his ribcage pumped in and out as he gave his musical warning cry. His big, liquid eyes stared at us with that intense, slightly inane expression that most squirrels wear, and his little paws trembled with his vocal efforts.
Quotes about Durrell
- Gerry Durrell was, to use the modern idiom, Magic. You imbibe it in his books, you feel it in his Zoo, you see it in the eyes of his trainees, and you hear it in even the most restrained tones of zoo directors, who may command budgets ten times the size that he ever did.
Magic people, as all well read children know, are especially susceptible to mortal dangers and Gerry was no exception, but, before it finally ran out, he sprinkled his Magic in such vast quantities, that much of it has germinated, and hundreds of good gardeners are feeding the new growth as if their lives, and the lives of other animals depend upon it — and indeed they do.
- I returned to Corfu, staying with friends at the small coastal village of Kaminaki, not far from Kalami, while I researched the life and times, haunts and homes of the young Gerald and his family on the island. The season of the festival of the fireflies – that fantastic insect spectacle so vividly described in My Family and Other Animals – was long over. What happened at Kaminaki one stifling moonless night was therefore doubly odd.
I had been dining at the taverna on the beach with my friends, and stayed on after they left, engaged in a desultory conversation with strangers. By the time I started for home it was pitch-black, and I could not find the gap at the head of the beach that led to the ancient paved track to the house. As I wandered up and down, uncertain where to go, a tiny winking light, a curious, incessant, electric neon flash, suddenly appeared at chest height about three feet in front of me. I took a step towards it, and it backed away by the same distance, then hovered, winking steadily.
It was a firefly, I knew. But it was odd that it was around so late in the year, and so alone; and odder still that it should appear to be relating, or at least reacting, to a human being in this uncharacteristic way. I moved towards it again, and again it backed away by the same distance. And so we proceeded, the firefly always at chest height and three feet in front of me. I realised I had been led through the gap in the beach that I could not find, and that we were at the foot of the ancient track. Guided by the firefly I walked slowly up the invisible path, step by step in the total darkness.
Halfway up, the firefly stopped and hovered, winking vigorously, until I was almost abreast of it. Then it made a sharp turn of ninety degrees to the left and proceeded up another, shorter but steeper path, with me trustingly trudging behind. It stopped again, and I realised I was at the garden gate of the house where I was staying. The firefly went over the gate, and I followed it across the unlit patio. The kitchen door was somewhere there in the dark, and the firefly flickered unerringly towards it. As I reached for the doorknob the firefly fluttered up and settled on the back of my hand, winking the while. I was home.
Was this normal? I asked myself. Were fireflies known to behave in this way towards people? I lifted my hand up to my face and peered closely at the wildly signalling minuscule organism. As I did so, I heard the voice of one of my friends, who, sitting silently in the dark, had witnessed everything: "Good … God!" I blew gently on the firefly, and it rose, turned once in a flickering circle, flew off into the tops of the overhanging olive trees and vanished into the night.
"You realise what that was, don’t you?" my friend said. He was a distinguished political journalist, and an eminently sane and sensible man. "Gerald Durrell keeping an eye on you, lending a hand, helping you home. No question about it. I think I’d better have another Metaxa after that!"
Every Corfiot Greek I told the story to nodded dryly and said matter-of-factly, without a hint of surprise, "Gerald Durrell."
Gerald always believed that if he survived in a life after death it would be in some form of animal reincarnation. He had hoped it would be something fun – a soaring eagle, or a leaping dolphin – but perhaps a firefly would do at a pinch.
Make of this visitation what you will, there is no doubt that Gerald Durrell’s spirit does live on in one way or another – in his books, in his zoo, in his ongoing mission, in the natural world he has left behind.
- Douglas Botting, in Gerald Durrell : The Authorised Biography (1999), Afterword
- We are in a period of ecological collapse right now, the consequence of habitat and species loss partly attributable to climate change and partly to the destructive activities of Homo sapiens (which in turn accelerate climate change). The predictions for future extinctions in our time are dire for both animals and plants – and perhaps for man himself, since man cannot escape the fate of the natural world, no matter how much he believes he can; like it or not, he remains part of the global ecosystem. It may be that in the long term the universe is implacably hostile to all life anyway. It may be that our planet and all its cargo are proceeding towards eventual extinction. It may be that in the shorter term all life proceeds according to the laws of evolution, through successive stages of extinction (from whatever causes) to universal oblivion. But as Gerald Durrell constantly reiterated throughout his adult life, that does not mean a man can stand idly by and watch it all happen without lifting a finger. With the millennium, perhaps, we will enter an age of ethics. Man can learn, as Gerald Durrell frequently pointed out; man can come to his senses, can change, can try to save the day. And thanks to the inspiration of people like him there are signs that, at the eleventh hour, this is beginning to happen; that we may one day hope to turn the tide of habitat-destruction and man-made extinction on earth.
That was Gerald Durrell’s message, and that was Gerald Durrell’s life mission. That message and that mission will be carried forward by those who succeed him.
- Douglas Botting, in Gerald Durrell : The Authorised Biography (1999), Afterword