A Zoo in my Luggage by Gerald Durrell

I’m always astounded by the television program, Border Security. I’m not interested in the immigration issues or drug busts – it’s the people bringing fruit, vegetables, live seafood and meat into Australia that is fascinating. Invariably, they’re in the ‘nothing to declare’ line when airport officials open their suitcases to find kilos of unidentifiable meat, plants and seeds, and they feign surprise. For my overseas readers, you basically can’t bring ANYTHING into Australia – we have the world’s strictest quarantine and biosecurity laws (remember Johnny Depp’s dogs?).

So it was with a mixture of interest and amazement that I read Gerald Durrell’s memoir, A Zoo in My Luggage. It’s an account of Durrell’s trip to what was then the British Cameroons in West Africa (now part of northern Nigeria and Cameroon), during which he and his wife captured animals to start their own zoo. The book concludes with their return to England, and how he managed his menagerie while he found a permanent home for them (they lived in his back yard and then later in the basement of a department store).

Eventually Durrell did start his own zoo, in Jersey. It was one of the first zoos to focus on species which are threatened with extinction and Durrell’s legacy and conservation efforts continue to this day.

It is essential that this book is read within the context of its day, which was 1960. Durrell’s methods for capturing, keeping and transporting the animals would most likely be illegal by current standards. Equally, the language and cultural observations may not be considered appropriate now. And let’s not even get into an ethical debate about zoos…

Durrell brings his adventure to life, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, animals (called ‘beef’), and local people. Particular characters give his story focus, from the Fon of Bafut, the chief of the grassland kingdom where Durrell wanted to collect ‘beef’, to Cholmondeley the chimpanzee and Bug-Eye the bush baby.

The only wild creatures at all common along the Eshobi path were butterflies… Whenever the path dipped into a small valley, a tiny stream would lie at the bottom, and on the damp, shady banks alongside the clear waters the butterflies would be sitting in groups, their wings opening and closing slowly, so that from a distance areas of the stream banks took on an opalescent quality, changing from flame red to white, from sky blue to mauve to purple, as the insects – in sort of a trance – seemed to be applauding the cool shade with their wings… suddenly we would be waist-high in a swirling merry-go-round of colour as butterflies dipped and wheeled around us and then, when we had passed, settled again on the dark soil which was as rich and moist as fruit cake, and just as fragrant.

I particularly enjoyed Durrell’s account of conversations with the Fon – their shared approach to English sings on the page –

‘My friend,’ he said, … ‘I sorry too much you go. We done have happy time for Bafut, eh?’
‘Very happy time, my friend.’
… he put his hands on my shoulders and peered into my face. ‘I hope you an’ all dis animal walka good, my friend,’ he said, ‘and arrive quick-quick for your country.’

3/5 Interesting (as far as ‘animal memoirs’ go).

The Fon’s idea of gin-drinking was to pour out half a tumberlerful and then colour it a deep brown with bitters. The result was guaranteed to slay an elephant at twenty paces.

Gin with bitters is actually a ‘pink gin’. It’s delicious.

11 responses

  1. This sounds astounding – something which would never happen today. I’m also astonished at the things people try and get into Australia – I’ve only seen a couple of episodes but there were whole suitcases full of dried meat!

    • Fairly sure not a single element of the story would happen today!

      The thing that’s amazing about Border Security is that invariably people have ticked ‘nothing to declare’ on their entry cards, despite the very, very long list on Australian cards of the things that are prohibited – it ranges from obvious things like food to camping equipment, shoes worn on farms etc etc (that stuff all has to be treated before you can take it). Thankfully German chocolates are allowed.

  2. The Jersey Zoo is a wonderful place! Sounds like this one is just average as far as his animal stuff goes. The Aye Aye and I and Catch Me a Colobus have been his stand-out animal-collecting books for me so far, but they don’t match his childhood memoirs.

  3. I’ve never read Gerald Durrell but people have always said his books were great fun. I can imagine you’re right though about having to read it in the context of the times.

    Did you see that brief miniseries last year about his youth in Corfu (was it??)

  4. I read My Family and Other Animals in school. All I remember is Gerald finding a lizard in a crack in a stone wall and (as far as I was concerned) tormenting it so that he could satisfy his curiosity. I’ve never felt the urge to read anything else by him. Zoos aren’t my thing, they make me sad for the animals. I enjoyed the description of the butterflies that you quoted, though.

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