It has been about three weeks since I last wrote on this blog, and newbies might have wondered what has happenned.
Firstly - a nice reason:
It was my 47th Birthday a few days after the Weird Weekend, and Corinna and I went away on holiday for a few days. We went to Jersey, mainly to visit Jersey Zoo, which was founded just before I was born by my hero Gerald Durrell.
I first went there forty years ago in the summer of 1966, and I have to admit that I was rather disappointed. Even at the age of seven I had read many of Durrell's books and I was expecting to see a marvellous zoo. Even at the age of seven, I was disappointed. It was obviously home-made and down at heel. The cages were made out of orange crates and chicken wire, and the whole place had a dilapidated air about it.
It was only when I read Douglas Botting's masterful biography of Durrell, that I realised that I had first visited the place at a pivotal moment in its history! He had left the zoo in the care of his old friend Ken Smith, ex-Whipsnade, and later the founder of Exmouth Zoo. Smith is a somewhat maligned figure in the hagiography of Durrell, because under his tutelage the zoo became very shambolic indeed, and was in imminent danger of closing. It should be said at this juncture, that having run the CFZ for nearly fifteen years, I am only too aware of what a difficult job juggling financial matters is, and I sincerely doubt whether Ken Smith should really be blamed for what happened. Gerry, however, did blame him, and he was summarily sacked.
My first visit forty years ago coincided with the initial time when Gerry and his team were desparately clawing themselves back from the brink of bankruptcy. Forty years on, and the zoo is a completely different affair.
Firtstly, it is not a zoo in the accepted sense of the word! During out four day sojourn on the island, we met several locals who felt they had been short-changed by the Durrell Organisation. "They took away our zoo", we were told. "There are no lions, and tigers. Even the snow leopards have gone", they said. And worse of all, it seems that some of the locals resented the way that "Jersey Zoo", had been replaced by "Durrell's". The island had lost a valuable amenity, some folk seem to think, but of course that just ain't true.
I have been to zoos all across the world. Until now, my two favourites were Pine Valley in New South Wales, where, in 1968, I saw my first (and to date only) living platypus, and Toronto Zoo in Canada. However, my heart now does entirely belong to Les Augres Manor in Jersey.
The local people are right. It isn't a proper zoo! It is what zoos should be but very seldom are. The exhibits are not just a parade of rare animals there to be gawked at, but are just the creatures that the organisation is studying at that moment. The visitor feels immenseley priveliged (or at least I did), to be allowed to be a part of such a magickal organisation, if only for a few hours.
The list of current breeding programmes makes impressive reading, but I think that the most touching exhibit was the wildfowl hide deep in the reed beds which have been planted in the central valley of the zoo. In most zoos, it is sad to say that when you see a sign reading `wildlife area` it is a synonym for "useless bit of land that we couldn't decide what to do with". At Jersey, the truth is completely different. Not only has an enormous amount of money and effort been expended on restoring some extraordinary reed beds, but these reed beds also include three extraordinary exhibits. The first is a colony of gentle lemurs which are notable for being the only primate species found exclusively in marshland. Alongside these is a bird hide from which you can watch wild specimens of some of the rarest of the British avifauna, and another hide marked only as "Teal hide".
One enters this exhibit thinking that one is going to be able to sit down and watch some native ducks going about their business, and one is immediately entranced to discover that instead you have been miraculously transported to a corner of Malagasy wetland where critically endangered Madagascan waterfowl are living and breeding. The scope of this project is simply breathtaking, and to see these animals, as near as possible in their wild habitat, is an awe inspiring experience.
We returned to the mnainland UK, secure in the knowledge that ten years after his death, Gerald Durrell's dream is in very safe hands indeed! The experience has given me several ideas as to how (on a far smaller scale), we can set out our own visitor's centre when it opens next year.
Secondly - a nasty reason:
As many of you know, I suffer from a Bipolar Disorder, commonly known as Manic Depression.
I have had this condition all my life, and have been registered disabled for the last ten years! I have been receiving treatment for many years, and am fully aware that this disease, which is increasingly debilitating, will be with me for the rest of my life.
Within days of our return to England I was struck down by the most debilitating bout of this disease that I have had for years. For the last ten days I have hardly left my bed; I have been practically unable to walk, think, or even speak for any length of time, and even today - my first day out of bed for nearly ten days - it has taken four hours plus to write this blog entry - something which would normally have taken me about twenty minutes.
I tell you this not to ask for your sympathy. The last bad bout I had lasted four months and damn near killed me. But I want to explain why the CFZ has become very quiet over the last few weeks. Several members of the CFZ Directorate have their own health problems,and I think that is important that we share our struggles with you all. The CFZ is not only a scientific organisation; it is also testament to the fact that many people in society are `written off`, and put onto the scrapheap. These people - and I am proud to include myself in this category - are, in fact, capable of achieving extraordinary things.
Of course, our present government will tell you that they are doing what they can to bring disabled people back into the workplace. Bullshit! What they are doing is trying to cut the Social Security budget by forcing the long-term ill to take jobs that may or may not be therapeutic for them. As in so many other ways in life, I am exceedingly proud to be able to hold my head high and state that the CFZ are part of an increasingly beleagured enclave of people doing our best to fight a gallant rearguard action against the inreasingly corporate world outside.... just the same as Durrell Wildlife.
Long may we (and they) be able to continue!