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Book review

Book Review: Gerald Durrell’s Encounters with Animals

A review of one of British conservationist and hilarious writer Gerald Durrell’s less-known gems.

Red slave-making ant facing off against a black ant.
[Image source: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151028-a-few-species-of-ant-are-pirates-that-enslave-other-ants]

British conservationist Gerald Durrell (1925-1995) is one of my favourite writers.  I discovered him as a child through Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons: documenting his trip to Mauritius to capture golden fruit-bats and other endangered animals for captive breeding programmes back in Europe.  I’ve read several of his other books since; my favourite is the Corfu trilogy of novel-length memoirs, documenting a childhood spent on the Greek island with ‘his family and other animals.’  Encounters with Animals is a slender volume of stories about animals in general, individual animals, and the humans Durrell met while catching animals.  These stories span the globe, and the length of Durrell’s career.

‘Documenting’ is too dry a word for Durrell’s writing.  ‘Embellished’ sounds as if he made things up.  Durrell’s writing is animated.  At his best, each of his sentences dances across the page.  Landscapes undulate moodily.  Geckos and scorpions bristle with personality as they bustle about their business.  Humans are larger-than-life: comically personifying some cardinal trait, as ingenuous in revealing their desires as the nonhuman animals that people Durrell’s lively landscapes.  Durrell’s best-known, and I think best, works are these animated documentaries of his life as a globetrotting naturalist.  Durrell has also written stories featuring only humans.  Of these stories I’m not a fan.  That might just be my bias: they’re not what I expect from a writer I grew up loving, thinking of as the writer of delightful autobiographical animal adventures.

Encounters with Animals opens with two short stories setting the scene.  When Durrell arrives at a fresh site, locals generally receive him cordially, but declare to him that all he’ll find is a crow or two.  ‘Locals’ generally indicating the local British colonial – many of these stories occurred before the sun set on the British empire.  Durrell takes us on a walk – through the pampas of Argentina, around British Guyana – to show us creatures lurking in every corner, waiting to come out until it’s cooler, or until they’ve grown used to you.  There’s a shade of snobbery in Durrell’s attitude to his nature-ignorant non-naturalist fellowmen: but that’s quickly passed over.

In “The Black Bush,” hornbills and Mona monkeys feast on figs and plantains: these first-service dinner-guests are profligate, eating one bite and letting the rest of the fruit drop to the forest floor.  Here it attracts striped mice, who pair up to squabble over a morsel, though the ground is littered with other morsels.  In “Lily-Trotter Lake,” a jacana leads her young nestlings perilously close to a cayman’s hangout.  Durrell, attached to the young bird, watches anxiously, prepared to take dissuasive action against the reptile.  Contemporary naturalists would not interfere – but Durrell is ready to do so.  I don’t know if this behaviour was considered unprofessional in his day; I know that it humanises him as a narrator.  Durrell’s always an active participant in his stories. 

[Image source: https://www.neprimateconservancy.org/mona-monkey.html]

Next follow five stories about ‘Animals in General’ – animals courting, building, warring, inventing, and vanishing.  As a child in Corfu, Durrell watches a daylong siege: a colony of red slave-making ants attack a black-ant fortress: to slay or scatter the adults, and capture the larvae.  A tigress in heat teases a hapless male.  The water-spider devises an ingenious diving-bell to go underwater.

Next follow stories about ‘Animals in Particular,’ and about ‘The Human Animal.’  In West Africa, Durrell adopts a set of orphan baby kusimanses: carnivorous rodents who proceed to break out of every successive confining-area, wreak havoc, bite Durrell when he won’t sate their insatiable appetites, and court danger.  In Argentina, Durrell adopts an anteater, who’s already and oddly been christened Sarah.  Sarah quickly develops a regimented routine of feeding, walks, tickle-fights – before graduating to a zoo.

One of the most memorable of these short stories is about a human animal: “Sebastian.”  The foreman of a ranch in Argentina, tasked by the owner to help Durrell get the animals he needs, Sebastian is a wonder-man.  He likes food, he can drink anyone under the table, he’s skilled with lasso and whip and knife and hatchet, and teaches his protégés the skill of hunting ostriches with boleadores: three balls tied together in a lasso-variant.

A kusimanse
[Image source: http://animalia.bio/common-kusimanse]

Encounters with Animals is not one of my favourite Durrells.  Several of the stories are, by format, not conventional stories so much as collections of interesting anecdotes.  The ‘Animals in General’ section falls in in this category.  Many of the stories seem written with less enthusiasm than his other work.  The reason is revealed perhaps by the first sentence of his Introduction: ‘During the past nine years, between leading expeditions to various parts of the world, catching a multitude of curious creatures, getting married, having malaria, and writing several books, I made a number of broadcasts on different animal subjects for the BBC.’  He goes on to explain: the present book is the product of turning those BBC scripts into short stories.  Durrell’s love for his work and his gift for narrative humour are apparent here, as elsewhere; if this book feels a little perfunctory, perhaps that’s because it is.

Still, this a brisk, delightful read for laypeople interested in animals – and for anyone who enjoys colourful narratives and (mostly) goodnatured humour. Have you read Gerald Durrell?  Or other conservationists?  Whatever the topic, do you enjoy reading embellished memoirs – or watching dramatised documentary films?  Fact or fiction, who’s your favourite nature writer?

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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