Gerald Durrell

Encounters with Animals

“An ugly or horrifying animal - like an ugly or horrifying human being - is never completely devoid of certain attractive qualities.”

“One of the loveliest and most sophisticated women I know have helped me cram a couple of swans into a taxicab boot in the middle of Buenos Aires,” writes the charming Gerald Durrell (January 7, 1925 – January 30, 1995) “Anyone who has ever tried to carry livestock in a Buenos Aires taxi will know what a feat that must have been.”

As a zoologist Durrell spent his life discovering and collecting animals for study and protection. He also spent his life sharing these discoveries, like this simply-named Encounters with Animals.

I have the greatest respect for animal parents… The first real attempt I made at being a foster-mother was to four baby hedgehogs. The female hedgehog is a very good mother. She constructs an underground nursery for the reception of her young; a circular chamber about a foot below ground-level, lined with a thick layer of dry leaves. Here she give birth to her babies, which are blind and helpless. They are covered with a thick coating of spikes, but these are white and soft, as though made of rubber. They gradually harden and turn brown when the babies are a few weeks old. When they are old enough to leave the nursery the mother leads them out and shows them how to hunt for food; they walk in line … the tail of one held in the mouth of the baby behind. The baby at the head of the column holds tight to mother’s tail with grim determination, and they wend their way through the twilit hedgerows like a strange prickly centipede.

After professed ineptitude at school and clamoring attempts to domesticate local wildlife, both Durrell and his family realized the young, imaginative Durrell might shine as a zoologist.1

Gerald Durrell and lemur friends.

Yet many people are zoologists, why are we enamoured with Durrell?

There is something in his sublime My Family and Other Animals that, I think, holds the key to understanding this exquisite creature. Durrell writes “All these discoveries filled me with a tremendous delight, so they had to be shared.”2

I remember once feeding an electric-eel that lived in a large tank in a zoo, and it was quite fascinating to watch his method of dealing with his prey. He was about five feet long and could cope adequately with a fish of about eight or ten inches in length. These had to be fed to him alive, and as their death was instantaneous, I had no qualms about this. The eel seemed to know when it was feeding-time and he would be patrolling his tank with the monotonous regularity of a sentry outside Buckingham Palace. As soon as a fish was dropped into his tank he would freeze instantly and apparently watch it as it swam closer and closer. When it was within range, which was about a foot or so, he would suddenly appear to quiver all over as if a dynamo had started within his long dark length. The fish would be, as it were, frozen in its tracks; it was dead before you realized that anything was happening.

Mrs. Helen Moyer holding large model of an eel. © The Field Museum, GN84155.
Mrs. Helen Moyer holding large model of an eel, 1947. Courtesy of the Field Museum’s expansive photo archives.

Durrell has an uncanny knack of seeing the human element in animals, not so much as to imagine them human, but to imagine their Umwelt, their point of view, what biologist Frans de Waal, calls “trying to understand them on their terms.”

A notably romantic member of the human race is described as hot-blooded; yet in the animal world it is among the cold-blooded creatures that you find some of the best courtship displays. The average crocodile looks as though he would prove a pretty cold-blooded lover as he lies on the bank, watching with his perpetual, sardonic grin and unwinking eyes the passing pageant of river life. Yet when the time and the place and the lady are right, he will fling himself into battle for her hand; and the two males, snapping and thrashing, will roll over and over in the water. At last the winner, flushed with victory, proceeds to do a strange dance on the surface of the water, whirling round and round with his head and tail thrust into the air, bellowing like a foghorn in what is apparently the reptilian equivalent of an old-fashioned waltz.

Encounters with Animals is one of Durrell’s many books effortlessly designed to lower our gaze towards the beckoning reeds, as Mary Oliver noted.

Photograph of Sussex forest by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Wendell Berry's "Our Only World" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In places there would be a great in the roof of leaves above, where some massive branch had perhaps been undermined by insects and damp until it had eventually broken loose and crashed hundreds of feet to the forest floor below, leaving this rent in the forest canopy through which the sunlight sent its golden shafts. In these patches of brilliant light you would find butterflies congregating: large ones with long, narrow, orange-red wings that shone against the darkness of the forest like dozens of candle flames; delicate little white ones like snowflakes would rise in clouds about my feet, then drift slowly back on to the dark leaf mold, pirouetting as they went.

“I am constantly being surprised by the number of people, in different parts of the world, who seem to be quite oblivious to the animal life around them… All they see is a sterile landscape.” writes Durrell, echoing Charles Darwin who wrote a century earlier: “No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”

Occasionally you even find yourself getting attached to the strangest of beasts, some weird creature you would never in the normal way have thought you could like. One such beast as this, I remember, was Wilhelmina.

Wilhelmina was a whip-scorpion, and if anyone had told me that the day would come when I would feel even the remotest trace of affection for a whip-scorpion I would never have believed them. Of all the creatures on the face of this earth the whip-scorpion is one of the least prepossessing. To those who do not adore spiders (and I am one of those people) the whip-scorpion is a form of living nightmare. It resembles a spider with a body the size of a walnut that has been run over by a steamroller and flattened to a wafer-thin flake. To this flake are attached what appear to be an immense number of long, fine and crooked legs which spread out to the size of a soup-plate. To cap it all, on the front are two enormously long slender legs like whips, about twelve inches long in a robust specimen. It possesses the ability to skim about at incredible speed and with apparently no effort – up, down or sideways – and to squeeze its revolting body into a crack that would scarcely accommodate a piece of tissue-paper.

That is a whip-scorpion, and to anyone who distrusts spiders it is the personification of the devil. Fortunately they are harmless, unless you happen to have a weak heart.

Tazanian Giant Tailless Whip Scorpion - "Damon variegatus". featured in Gerald Durrell's "Encounters with Animals" in the Examined Life Library.
Tanzanian Giant Tailless Whip Scorpion – “Damon variegatus”. I love its striped legs.

“An ugly or horrifying animal – like an ugly or horrifying human being,” writes Durrell in a note of cosmic empathy, “is never completely devoid of certain attractive qualities.”

Accompany this intimate portrait of our animal brethren with my studies of people (including Durrell) who pay attention to insects; the childlike nature of curiosity; and the beckoning sense of wonder that bids us to open our eyes and hearts to the creatures immediately present.