Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book 136, Jersey: "Menagerie Manor" by Gerald Durrell

During my primary and secondary school holidays, my English teachers had a habit of prescribing Durrell - and why not? Kids love animals, and a bit of light, classic British humour is always a delight. Never got round to reading him, though, so it was only when I conceived this project that I realised he was the founder of a zoo in Jersey; the very first zoo to have an interest in sustaining endangered species through captive breeding pairs, in fact.

The image above isn't of the copy I read, I'm afraid - I ended up with the UEA's mammoth compendium of Durrell's writings: My Family and Other AnimalsThe Bafut BeaglesThe Drunken ForestEncounters with AnimalsA Zoo in My Luggage and The Whispering Land, as well as this baby. Didn't feel compelled to consult the other books - they're all about his growing up amidst wildlife in Corfu, or collecting creatures in Cameroon or Argentina.

But I might read 'em someday, The animal yarns here are loads of fun - little adventure tales about escaped tapirs, nail-biting stories of charismatic gorillas on the brink of death, blunder-after-blunder anecdotes of attempting to work with live reptiles and primates on TV (for some reason, he had to crate up his animals and send them to Bristol for the recording).

And yeah, it does make you want to visit. Singapore's zoo is often ranked as the best in the world, and the scenes in the Manor of des Augres aren't a hundred percent charming - there are cages and chicken-wire mentioned a-plenty. But this was back in 1959, when Singapore was still getting its own self-rule - Durrell couldn't even figure out the sex of his lizards, and everyone in Europe was still killing their New Zealand tuataras by putting them in tropical greenhouses. Makes you want to see how they've moved on - this book was written just five years after the zoo's opening; think how many more stories have bred since then.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

I'll leave you with one of the more alarming descriptions of animal behaviour Durrell managed to catalogue, regarding that most loved of Singapore Zoo animals, the orang-utan:

Representative quote: It is unfortunate that, like many apes, Oscar and Bali have developed some rather revolting characteristics, one of which is the drinking of each other's urine. It sounds frightful, but they are such enchanting animals and do it in such a way that you can only feel amused to see Oscar sitting up on his iron ladder urinating copiously, while Bali sits below with open mouth to receive the nectar, and then savours it with all the air of a connoisseur. She puts her head on one side, rolling the liquid around her mouth as if trying to make up her mind from which vineyard it came and in what year it was bottled. They also, unfortunately, enjoy eating their own excreta.

Next book: William Shakespeare's Henry IV (Parts I & II), from the United Kingdom.

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