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Who is Gerald Durrell?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gerald Durrell, born in Jamshedpur, India in 1925, was a British naturalist, conservationist, author, and educator. In 1958, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on the isle of Jersey, but he is perhaps best beloved for his large series of books about animals, collecting expeditions, and zookeeping. Gerald Durrell is the brother of well known novelist Lawrence Durrell. He died in 1995 from post surgical complications related to a liver transplant.

Gerald Durrell spent his childhood in India in the care of a nursemaid. He was fourth and youngest of the Durrell children. In 1928, after the death of his father, the remainder of the family returned to Britain, where they lived until 1935, when they moved to the island of Corfu in Greece. Gerald Durrell traced the beginnings of his lifelong fascination and love for animals to his time in Greece, where he collected and learned about everything that walked, swam, crawled, or flew.

When war broke out, the family returned to Britain, leaving Lawrence behind. Gerald Durrell initially had a great deal of trouble finding a job in London, because he had been home schooled and had no practical experience. He was exempted from military service for health reasons and worked on a farm during the war.

In 1945, Gerald Durrell took a position as a zookeeper at the Whipsnade Zoo, while applying for positions on wildlife collecting expeditions. Due to his lack of experience, he was turned down, and he financed his first collecting expedition in 1947 independently. He traveled to Cameroon, collecting a variety of animals that were sold to zoos across Britain.

Durrell went on many animal collecting expeditions after that, always focusing on the collection of threatened and endangered species so that they could perhaps be saved in captivity. Durrell was well known for being a careful collector of specimens, making sure not to over-collect and trying to gather healthy specimens that would do well in captivity. He also fed his animals varied diets of high quality and attempted to give them lives as natural as possible in captivity.

In 1951, Gerald Durrell married Jacqueline Sonie Wolfenden, who along with his brother Lawrence encouraged him to start writing about his experiences. Beginning with The Overloaded Ark (1953), Gerald Durrell wrote a large number of books about his animal collecting adventures, and later about his zoo. Using the sale of his books, he financed more expeditions, and he used the funds from The Overloaded Ark to travel to Paraguay, where he ran into a coup d'etat and was forced to release his entire collection.

In 1956, Durrell became frustrated with the way in which zoos were run and traveled to Cameroon again to collect animals that he intended to make the core of his own zoo. Upon his return, he struggled to find a site, and was finally offered Les Augres Manor on Jersey. He began outfitting it as a zoo, traveling to South America to collect additional animals, and the Jersey Zoo opened to the public in 1958. In 1963, Durrell founded the Wildlife Preservation Trust, aimed at raising funds for conservation.

Gerald Durrell had many ideas about zookeeping that were considered radical at the time and revolutionized the animal keeping industry. He believed that zoos, first and foremost, had a responsibility to preserve endangered species through captive breeding. Zoos should not keep common species that were secure in the wild and should not be established solely for entertainment. To this end, in 1978, Durrell founded a training center for conservationists at his zoo, attracting students from all over the world. The training center strove to provide struggling nations with a strong corps of animal conservationists who could establish zoos and captive breeding programs to preserve their dwindling natural heritage.

Gerald Durrell made a huge contribution to the 20th century conservation movement, founding a number of branch conservation centers all over the world, collecting and saving numerous endangered species, and revolutionizing the way zoos think about their collections. He also established and helped to found a number of wildlife preservation trusts all over the world, issuing public appeals that were widely received. His books are wildly popular, and he wrote a large and diverse collection of autobiographical, travel, children's, and technical books, along with short stories and several humorous novels.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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