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Gerald Durrel: My family and Other Animals

 

 

One day the grey English skies are too depressing
for the Durrell family and they decide to move
somewhere hotter. They sell the house they have
just bought and move to Corfu, an island to the west of
mainland Greece. None of them speaks Greek but that
does not worry them. A local taxi driver who has spent
eight years in Chicago makes friends with them and looks
after them. Mrs Durrell wants a villa with a bathroom and
the taxi driver finds them the only one on Corfu. They
settle down. They meet all sorts of people on the island,
and friends come and go from England.
Gerald, the youngest member of the family, turns the
family villa into a zoo, bringing in a tortoise named
Achilles, scorpions, snakes, two baby magpies and a
seagull named Alecko. One funny story follows another,
as the rest of the family meet dangerous animals in
unexpected places around the house at any time of the
day or night.
Gerald Durrell was born in 1925 in India, and was the
youngest of four children. From the age of two he knew
that he wanted to be a naturalist (somebody who studies
plants and animals). His first word was ‘zoo’.
Durrell never knew his father, who died when he was a
baby. The family returned to England when Gerald was
three, but after a few years they found the grey skies and
summer rain too depressing. So they sold the family home
and moved to Corfu, in Greece. For Gerald, now aged 10,
this was paradise - a green and beautiful island with a very
small population of humans and a very large population of
animals, insects and plants. Gerald spent hours
wandering over the hills and by the sea, turning over
stones to look for insects and building up his collection of
‘small uglies’ - things like scorpions and spiders. This was
the beginning of a lifetime as a naturalist.
After five wonderful years, Mrs Durrell felt that Gerald
needed some serious teaching. This was 1939 and war
was breaking out across Europe so the Durrells returned 
to England.
When the war was over, Durrell spent a year at one of
England’s most important zoos - Whipsnade Zoo - as a
student keeper. In 1947 he used the little money he had to
pay for his first expedition to collect animals from the wild.
He returned from the Cameroons in Africa with over 100
animals for British zoos. But after three trips his money
ran out. His brother Larry, now himself a successful writer,
suggested that Gerald write about his experiences. And
so his first book came out, The Overloaded Ark. It
received nothing but praise in both America and Britain.
Other successful books followed, including My Family and
Other Animals in 1956.
Durrell formed close relationships with the animals he
brought back. He found that just when the animal had
learned to trust him and to act naturally in his company,
he had to give it up to a zoo. The only answer was to set
up his own zoo, which he did on the British island of
Jersey in 1959. The Jersey Zoo was the first in the world
to breed animals in captivity to save them from extinction.
Durrell dedicated his life to preserving animals in danger.
Throughout his life, Durrell travelled the world, studying
and collecting animals. He and his wife made the first of
many television programmes in 1962 about a trip to New
Zealand. But his life was not always easy. He had to fight
more traditional zoos to get them to accept his ideas
about saving species. He also suffered from ill-health,
from diseases that he caught during his early expeditions
to Africa.
Durrell has been described as ‘one of the first people to
wake the world up to what was happening to the
environment. His books and programmes helped a whole
new generation of environmentalists come into being.’ He
died in 1995.


Gerald Durrell had a very unconventional childhood. He
had a series of tutors but almost no formal schooling.
However, his five years in Corfu, much of it spent with his
scientist friend, Theodore, who appears in the story,
provided the perfect education for a naturalist.
Corfu lies between the heel of Italy and the western
coast of mainland Greece in the Ionian sea. Life there in
the 1930s was very different from life today. It was very
remote and the days were very quiet. People’s lives were
ruled by the weather and the seasons. The Durrells must
have seemed a very strange and unconventional family to
the local people. Corfu was one of the first islands to
attract holiday-makers, who began to arrive in large

numbers in the 1960s, perhaps partly encouraged by
Gerald and Lawrence Durrell’s enchanting descriptions of
the island. Travel writing raises an interesting ethical issue
- writing about a beautiful, unspoilt part of the earth
always attracts people to it, and those very people begin
to destroy it.
As well as being a collection of funny stories, My Family
and Other Animals is an interesting look at a family
growing up. It shows us how five very different people
with very different interests can live together. Their
experiences together prepare them for living in the outside
world. For example, when Larry laughs at Leslie and says
that anyone can shoot, the family make him prove his
words. Then of course his attempts to shoot a bird end in
disaster when he falls into a pool and spends the next 24
hours in bed. Families can be honest with each other in a
way that friends cannot.
The most important theme in all of Gerald Durrell’s
writing is the relationship between humans and animals.
In his book A Zoo in my Luggage, Durrell writes, ‘To me
the [destruction] of an animal species is a criminal

offence, in the same way as the destruction of anything
we cannot recreate or replace, such as a Rembrandt [a
famous painting] or the Acropolis [in Athens].’ Underlying
all his life’s work was the philosophy that humans must
respect, understand, care for and protect all the other
species on the earth.
Durrel's book was adapted to a film:

     Corfu:
       
       The White Villa:
                                             The Strawberry Villa:
                                                                 

        Clip from, the film:

        Durrel's Zoo in Jersey: