Born in Jamshedpur, India, Gerald Malcolm Durrell was the younger brother of author Lawrence Durrell. The two other siblings were Leslie, eight years older than Gerald, and Margot, who was five years older. They were the children of Louisa Florence Dixie and [Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a British engineer.
Following the death of their father in 1928, the family moved to England, but in 1933, at the urging of Lawrence, moved again to the Greek island of Corfu. Years later Gerald documented his earliest animal adventures and the antics of his family on Corfu in his best-selling book, My Family and Other Animals. In 1939 the threat of war forced the family to return to the UK, and they settled in Bournemouth.
During his youth Gerald Durrell built up a collection of insects, birds and animals all manner of creatures, assembling everything from minnows to woodlice, eagle owls to scorpions. School and Gerry did not agree, and he was educated by private tutors, who concentrated on natural history subjects, finding it much the easiest way to hold his attention. In 1945 he became a student keeper at the Zoological Society of London's Whipsnade Park to gain experience with a wider variety of animals.
At the age of 21 he inherited £3,000 with which he financed, organised and led his first animal collecting expedition – to the British Cameroons. For the next ten years he travelled to many lesser known parts of the world, acquiring animals for the major British zoological gardens.
spider web quoteDuring brief interludes between expeditions, Gerry launched his second career. Encouraged by Lawrence, he began writing stories of his animal escapades for magazines and radio broadcasts, publishing his first book, The Overloaded Ark, in 1953. He eventually wrote 33 books, including the best-selling The Bafut Beagles, A Zoo in My Luggage, Catch Me a Colobus, The Stationary Ark, The Ark’s Anniversary and, his final book, The Aye-aye and I, published in 1992.
Gerry’s unique insight into the animal kingdom and the engaging humour with which he described his adventures made him one of the most widely read authors of animal stories. His humorous account of his Corfu childhood, My Family and Other Animals, has sold millions of copies worldwide and his books have been translated into 31 languages.
Gerry also hosted seven television series as well as making numerous appearances on television and radio programmes. His early years of collecting expeditions were filmed by the BBC Natural History Unit. Later series, including The Amateur Naturalist and Durrell in Russia, were filmed by independent producers for Channel 4 and subsequently sold to networks and satellite stations in over 40 countries, reaching 150 million viewers.
Difficult as it was in the war and post-war years to find a job, especially for a home-schooled youth, the enterprising Durrell worked as a help at an aquarium and pet store. Some reminiscences of this period can be found in Fillets of Plaice. His call-up for the war came in 1943, but he was exempted from military duty on medical grounds, and asked to serve the war effort by working on a farm. After the war he joined Whipsnade Zoo as a student keeper.
His wildlife expeditions began with a 1947 trip to the British Cameroons with ornithologist John Yealland, financed by a £3,000 inheritance from his father at 21. The animals he brought back were sold to London Zoo, Chester Zoo, Paignton Zoo, Bristol Zoo and Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester). He continued such excursions for many decades, during which time he became famous for his work for wildlife conservation.
On 26 February 1951 he married Manchester resident Jacquie Wolfenden; they eloped, because of opposition from her father and lived in a small bedsitter in Durrell's sister Margaret's Bournemouth boarding house. Jacquie accompanied Durrell on most of his following animal expeditions, and helped found and manage Jersey Zoo.
With encouragement and assistance from Jacquie and advice from elder brother Lawrence Durrell, Gerald Durrell started writing humorous autobiographical accounts to raise money to fund his expeditions and conservation efforts. His first book - The Overloaded Ark - was a huge success, causing him to follow up with others.
Durrell's growing disillusionment with the way zoos of the time were run made him contemplate founding his own zoo. His 1957 trip to Cameroon for the third and last time was primarily to collect animals which would form the core collection of his zoo. This expedition was also filmed and the success of the film To Bafut with Beagles, together with his popular and autobiographical radio programme Encounters with Animals, made him a regular with the BBC Natural History unit for decades to come, as well as generating much-needed funds for his conservation projects.
Bournemouth and Poole municipalities turned down his suggestion for a zoo, providing material for his book A Zoo in My Luggage. He moved to Jersey, leased the 16th Century Les Augres Manor, and founded his zoo, which opened in 1959.
As the zoo grew in size, so did the number of projects undertaken to save threatened wildlife in other parts of the world. Durrell was instrumental in founding the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust to cope with the increasingly difficult challenges of zoo, wildlife and habitat management.
Gerry also dreamed of creating a “mini-university” in Jersey, to offer training to conservation professionals from all over the world in the techniques he and his staff were developing. In 1977 the first trainee came to Jersey, and by 1980 a training officer had been appointed and the International Training Centre was up and running at the Les Noyers manor house within the site grounds.
Jacquie Durrell separated from and then divorced Gerald Durrell in 1979. He met his second wife, Lee McGeorge Durrell in 1977 when he lectured at Duke University, where she was studying for a PhD in animal communication. They married in 1979. He died on 30 January 1995, in Jersey, aged 70.