Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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Not your average zoo

Come face to face with endangered species at a sanctuary in Britain’s Channel Islands

The Andean Bear looked harassed, and rightfully so. The Oriental small-clawed otter was whizzing betwixt and between the bear’s statuesque legs like a fly at the Acropolis. At first, the bear had tried to take the high road, doing his best to ignore the nips at his heels and the stealing of food.

Then he glared straight at the otter for a bit, implying that one well-placed kick could end all that annoying gamboling. Hint, hint.

But now, having ruefully discovered that the target was too elusive for a casual swipe and too small to justify a full-scale attack, the bear looked as thrilled as a mother whose kid had discovered a new candy shop. The otter, on the other hand, looked jubilant.

It was all working out according to plan — a plan created by Gerald Durrell for a new kind of zoo, which he set up on the Channel Island of Jersey, off the coast of France.

Durrell was one of those rare, happy people who knew what he wanted to do before he knew just about anything else. He states this plainly in his book, The Stationary Ark: “The first word that I could enunciate with any clarity was ‘zoo.’ I have been saying it ever since in alternating tones of delight and despair.”

Durrell was a product of the colonial age, born to British parents in India in 1925. Near his home was a makeshift zoo. He would drag his nanny there whenever he could. From the age of two to six, he collected everything from “minnows to woodlice.” By the time he was 20, he was working as a student zookeeper in England. At 21, he used an inheritance to finance an animal collecting expedition.

The Modern Ark

Durrell’s love of animals never wavered, but his affairs with zoos suffered serious setbacks as he learned more about how they operated. “It should be a complex laboratory, educational establishment and conservation unit,” he wrote. But, invariably, it was just cheap entertainment.

Animals were often fed food that was spoiled. They were also subjected to torment and put in horrific enclosures. He wrote of visiting one European zoo with a Serbo-Croat colleague. They gazed, appalled, at the elephant house. It had been built to look like a group of elephants at a watering hole. Intellectually pleasing, but practically useless. The colleague lamented: “What for the roof so high? They think sometimes maybe the elephant is meaning to fly up at night and be roosting?”

Durrell’s expeditions convinced him that humans were triggering a new wave of worldwide extinctions. He knew that zoos could help stave off the imminent disaster through research and breeding programs. He also realized that this was not happening, so he decided to start one of his own.

The idea of using zoos to help animal conservation was not popular. “If you mentioned the subject to any august body of conservationists,” he wrote, “they tended to look at you as if you had confessed to the belief that necrophilia was an ideal form of population control.”

Luckily, he had some backers. By this time, Durrell had turned his animal adventures into best-selling books. Against all odds, he managed to get a loan using the profits from books yet unwritten as collateral (though his publisher did insist he take out life insurance “in case I got eaten by a lion before I could repay the loan”).

He then tried to set up shop in southern England, but, after a year, was defeated by the mightiest beast of all: local government bureaucracy. Frustrated, he started looking for a place that “was small and made its own rules.” He found the island of Jersey, nominally under the English crown but closer to France than Britain. In three days, he had the land and permits that had eluded him on the mainland.

The ark launched in 1959. From the start, it was a sanctuary and breeding centre for endangered animals. Soon after, he set up what has become known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Its logo is a dodo.

Uncharted Territory

It was time for Durrell to prove that he could do things differently. His goals were clear. He wanted to promote conservation around the world, create breeding colonies of threatened species with the hope of reintroducing animals into the wild, organize rescue missions for endangered species and study biology to help protect animals in wild. His zoo was to be a research station and a second line of defense against extinction.

It looked unlike any other zoo. It was the physical embodiment of his personal priorities. He explained that, for him, the order of importance was “a) the needs of the animals, b) the needs of the person looking after the animal, c) the public who wish to see the animal and, d) the aesthetic aims of the architect and of the gardener who has to tend it. Looking around the average zoo, you will find, far too often, that this order of importance has been reversed.”

The result is a fabulously non-zoo zoo. Many of the animals are not cute and photogenic — just very nearly extinct. Much of the food they are given is grown on an on-site organic farm. It provides better nutritional value and eating whole plants is more enjoyable for the animals.

Enclosures are oddly shaped with lots of “furniture” and hiding holes for the animals to retreat into when stressed. Durrell said that by taking animals out of the wild, he was not taking away their liberty, he was taking away their territory, which is “a form of natural cage.”

For example, in West Africa, Durrell observed a pair of squirrels that lived their entire lives in three closely clumped trees. They only left to chase off other squirrels. The trees gave them everything they needed: food, water, lack of boredom and a safe place to reproduce. His job was to recreate in Jersey a new territory that offered the same essentials — a very tricky job.

At the zoo, biologists, dieticians, veterinarians, architects, designers, behaviourists, field researchers and many others work together to learn what keeps animals mentally and physically healthy.

Beastly Boring

They have made reams of important discoveries. Marmosets seem to flourish with south facing aviary-type enclosures. Apes love to bicker over territories, but, as with their human cousins, good fences make good neighbours (in an event reported around the world, it was here, in 1986, that a child fell into the gorilla enclosure. Jambo, the lead male, protected the boy until the keepers came in and “saved” him).

Diet is extremely important. For some birds, spiders act as a laxative. For apes, it’s fresh pineapple. And, like with humans, there are huge individual variations within a species.

Durrell explained: “One of our African civets always used to ‘kill’ his bananas (not other fruit, only banana) using a method that presumably civets use in the wild to kill their prey. He would first grab and shake the banana into what he imagines to be a state of semi-consciousness, then he would fall on it repeatedly with his shoulder until the banana was a flat squishy mess smeared over the ground. Satisfied it was dead, he would then eat it with relish.”

Durrell also realized that one of the biggest dangers for captive animals is boredom. “It is like a man who, having worked for 35 years in an office or factory, suddenly finds himself in retirement and faces an empty life. In many cases he dies quickly, out of sheer boredom.”

To stave that off, animals are given food hidden in rotting logs and placed in enclosures that allow them to interact safely with each other. Some are sometimes paired up in unusual ways. Durrell thought it healthy for an animal to have “a neighbour or two to have exciting, acrimonious, but unsanguinary battles and disputes with.” This is why the Andean Bear was looking so harassed. Durrell knew that the otter and the bear might drive each other crazy, but they would also keep each other sane.

Durrell died in 1995, but the Trust is still guided by Durrell’s widow, Lee, a fine scientist in her own right. They are actively working to save dozens of species around the world and helping to coordinate efforts with countless others. There is also an on-site international training centre for conservation workers. Over 1700 students from 120 countries have graduated and make up a global network of “new Noahs.”

Successes include the breeding and reintroduction into the wild of several endangered species, including bringing the number of Bali starlings up from eight worldwide to over a thousand.

Durrell wrote 37 books, saved several species and proved that a zoo does not have to be a zoo. It is up to the rest of us to prove that it also does not have to be an ark.

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