Beasts in My Belfrey by Gerald Durrell – The Animals of Whipsnade in 1945 – including humans
Beasts in My Belfrey by Gerald Durrell
Gerald Durrell was, like his older brother, a very good writer, even if they chose very different subjects. In this funny and fascinating book, Gerald presents a (fictionalised) memoir of his year as a trainee zookeeper in 1945. Anyone who is concerned about the keeping of animals in zoos will soon discover that Gerald’s ambition was always to be an animal collector, which translated to finding endangered and rare creatures in order to conserve a species, to enable a breeding programme which would improve the survival of the animals. This culminated in the animal collection which is still going strong on Jersey today, an “ark” which fulfils Gerald’s dream. All this is much in the future when the young Gerald applies to Whipsnade Zoo for vital experience. The fact that it would take him away from his family who had barely tolerated his collecting animals at times represented a challenge – but in the first instance at least he was a cossetted lodger. He discovers a cast of human characters that provide many funny anecdotes, as well as the animals who carry on living their lives despite as well as because of his ministrations.
This genuinely funny book features many creatures that Gerald soon has to learn to negotiate as he strives to keep them fed, watered, clean and entertained. Some animals virtually ignored him, some were openly affectionate, while others seemed determined to do him harm. In every section of the zoo he becomes involved in learning their habits, the best way to manoeuvre round them and establish a relationship with them as much as possible. He also does the research on the particular breed and species, and I certainly learnt a lot about the origins, the behaviour and the special needs of many of the animals. Not that the facts are boring; they are presented in Gerald’s usual style with a great deal of humour. Thus we discover how he is thrown in at the deep end with the lions – not the beginner animal he had fondly imagined. Albert and his wives look overweight and lazy, but Jesse instructs Gerald that they are still dangerous, and Gerald soon discovers by observation how dangerous. He watches as Albert pushes his wives aside for the most tempting joint of meat, and says “Albert had a genius for being annoying”. The weekly task of removing the discarded bones from the lions’ domain required persuading them into a trap, which was far more difficult than it at first seemed. Moreover, when wandering around collecting the bones with Joe, the roaring of the beasts suggests that they have got free. As both men run for the exit, “Is he out?” I inquired when we were safely outside the cage. “I don’t know,” said Joe, “I didn’t wait to see.”
There are other adventures with animals varying from the small to the large, the giraffe and his goat companion, the extrovert female polar bear with her sedate partner. There are the excitements of separating female bears from their cubs, breaking the ice for baby yaks and discovering many things about wolves. Gerald also revels in the human staff that surround him, including the vet and the plaster of Paris, the dormitory accommodation and food, the teasing over his notebooks and much more. There are some very funny set pieces such as the regular journeys to the cinema and the resigned attitude of some of the keepers to their tasks. Gerald points out that the keeping staff were not necessarily chosen for their enthusiasm for animals, but they genuinely did their best.
This is an enjoyable read which I would recommend for both animal lovers and those who are unsure of the finer differences between some of the animal breeds. Gerald also revels in the descriptions of the human animals that become part of his life, and those are also very funny. This is definitely a book to cheer up a dull day, which combines humour with information and reflections on the need to conserve animals lest there be a severe reduction in the number of species forever. A jolly and funny book, a lovely read for anyone.