Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Yesterday we announced that there was a big change at CFZ Press. I wrote:

"18 months ago we started a magazine called Exotic Pets which did basically what it said on the tin, and covered ummmm exotic pets really. It has been a moderate success, but for a number of different reasons we have decided to knock it on the head. However, don't be distraught, because the magazine will live on albeit under a different name.

As of issue seven which (I sincerely hope) will go to press midweek, the periodical will be called The Amateur Naturalist."

We have had several people contact me to ask for further explanations of what this is all about, so I have decided to publish - ahead of its inclusion in the magazine - my editorial...

Dear friends,

What a peculiar year 2009 is turning out to be. Everything seems to be changing.

We are in the midst of what we are reliably informed is the worst financial crisis in living memory, but at Christmas the shops were full of people spending money like sailors on shore leave.

Frighteningly, a lot of what they were spending money on was livestock, and much of that livestock was exotic.

A few days before Christmas, I was in a Barnstaple pet shop that shall remain nameless, because it's not their fault, and anyway that is where we buy a lot of our animal supplies each month, and I would hate to be banned from there.

However, back to the story.

I was pootling around by the wild bird food trying to find some softbill mix that would tempt the jaded appetites of our pet crested mynah, and jackdaw, when I heard the most appalling dialogue that I have ever heard in a pet shop. I don't usually make a habit of listening to other people's conversations, but I am particularly fond of our colony of African stiped mice, and once I heard somebody else - albeit somebody of the female gender, dolled up to the nines in a revolting Christmas elf costume that was obviously meant to be sexy, but sadly gave the completely opposite impression - mention the species, I completely unethically pricked up my ears. She was haranguing the poor beleaguered shop assistant about the animals she had seen, and more importantly, the animals she wanted to buy her family, and her poor unfortunate boyfriend for Christmas. "I saw some African striped mice the other day" she shrieked frenetically. "They were cute, but I didn't like the colour. Can you get them for me in black and white?"

I so wanted to pick up one of the long tubes of fat-based wild bird food that was displayed fetchingly on the display stand next to me, and beat her severely around the head and neck, whilst screaming that the colours of wild animals are a matter of thousands of years of evolution, and that the only reason one should keep them as pets is to glorify in the magnificence of the natural world. However, it would not have been the act of a gentleman, and I didn’t want to get arrested, so I kept my council. It was not until some weeks later that I came to the uncomfortable realisation that if there was enough of a free-market demand for zebra-striped black and white African grass mice then some venture capitalist would probably invest in the genetic engineering mechanism needed to create them.

Sadly, I have seen a lot of things like this in the last year or so. Being the editor of a magazine like this makes you, well it makes me anyway, re-evaluate one's moral stance upon the pet keeping industry. We are no longer involved with the Somerset zoo. I do not want to go into details, but sufficient to say that once again we were forced to re-evaluate our position on a number of issues.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have not become one of the anti-pet keeping lobby, or the anti-zoo lobby, but I believe that it is time for us all, whether private collectors, or zoo keepers to re-evaluate why we keep exotic animals. I have been visiting zoos now for more than four and a half decades. My first word was `zoo` according to my dear departed mother, but Gerald Durrell's mother is also supposed to have claimed that, and I have always suspected that my Mama lifted that eminently quotable line from one of Durrell's books.

The first English zoo that I remember was a long defunct collection in Southampton in 1963, but before that my mother, and the two Chinese women who brought me up used to take me, in my pushchair, to the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens, which was a particularly sordid little collection during the early 1960s, where I would gaze with delight at the rather dishevelled Celebes apes (as they were called in those days), the Chinese water monitor, and a cage of rather bedraggled coatis (one which had a tail missing).

However, I adored the place and have been an avid zoo-goer ever since. I have also kept exotic, or at least unusual, pets since I was about six years old when my first zoological collection consisted of a Chinese praying mantis, and a pair of hummingbird hawkmoth caterpillars in jam jars on my bedroom window. Hong Kong was a great place to grow up when your heart was set on the natural world.
However, even from my earliest days I have seen my forays into Nature Study, both in zoos, and in the countryside, and even - let me stress - in jam jars on my windowsill as a spiritual thing; worshipping at the altar of Mother Nature if you will.

And this is where I think we as a community of pet keepers, and zoo goers have gone wrong. For too many people this communion with the natural world has become a mere hobby, or worse a minor lifestyle choice.

Now, we may be committing commercial suicide by changing horses in midstream and transforming what was a relatively successful magazine about exotic pet-keeping into a quarterly journal of radical Natural History, but it was never about the money in the first place. The whole concept of the magazine was to encourage responsible pet-keeping, and to promote the concept of exotic animal husbandry as a part of the study of Natural History, rather than as a fatuous hobby which essentially doesn’t go anywhere.

So, in essence nothing has changed. It is still the same magazine that it always has been, except now it is over twenty pages bigger, and we hope better. The title `Exotic Pets` never really sat well with me, and I am glad that we have nailed our colours to the mast with this new re-branding.

We made the decision to change from an A4 magazine format to a perfect bound book one for several reasons. We were printing and manufacturing Exotic Pets ourselves, and the task was really too much for us. The overheads were unbearable, and it took such a long time to produce that the whole house got taken over for three nerve-juddering weeks at a time. But the other reason is that these books are more durable; they can be put onto bookshelves like proper books and not left to get crumpled and tatty like magazines, because this a periodical that I think you will want to keep to read again and again, rather than just read once and chuck away.

So welcome to a new, radicalised periodical. We believe that unless we can put our own house in order, then the well-meaning but ultimately misguided folk of the Animal Rights lobby will win, and in twenty years time there will be no exotic pet-keeping (in the UK at least) and every zoo will be exactly the same. No-one will roam the countryside, and children will only see animals as two-dimensional avatars on the screens of their video-games consoles, and that will be a crying shame.

Natural History is no longer seen as a suitable hobby for young people, but in many cases is now an illegal one. A colleague of mine who works for the BBC Natural History Unit told me that children making a documentary on pond dipping were forced to wear safety helmets and rubber gloves before they were allowed near a garden pond. It is now illegal to take frogspawn from your own garden pond and put it in a fishtank.

Changing social mores have meant that most of the children of people I know sit indoors all day playing computer games rather than exploring what little countryside is left. This may seem trivial to you, but Darwin, Linneaus, Mendel, and Gerald Durrell, amongst many others, were amateur naturalists first and foremost. Most professional zoologists started off as amateur naturalists. If kids are no longer able, or encouraged, to do this is it any wonder most of them seem to want to grow up to be image consultants or TV presenters?

We are not condemning the Animal Rights movement. Indeed, during my re-examination of our motives for doing what we do which has taken up much of the last three months, I realised that my attitude towards the people who want to ban exotic pet-keeping, and the people who want to close down zoos has been clouded by the fact that I adore zoos, and have kept what could loosely be described as exotic pets for over forty years.

However, if I am to be honest about it, I have been viewing both lots of pressure groups through my own “filter” of being an exotic pet-keeper who likes to go to zoos. However in the eighteen months or so since I started this magazine (under its previous moniker) I have been travelling around zoos and pet shows, as a journalist rather than as a punter, and whilst I have seen many outstanding and morally uplifting things, other things that I have seen are more than slightly disturbing.

Too many zoos that I have seen in recent months have been tourist attractions first, and centres of zoological excellence not even second. I am not naïve, nor am I stupid. I realise the commercial constraints under which zoos have to operate, and I also realise that tacky tourist rubbish makes money, but I am becoming more and more uneasy about the philosophical implications of a zoo where the animals are secondary to selling overpriced rubbish to the great unwashed. I can see why the people who wish to have zoos closed down say that such places are philosophically unsound, because by their very nature they are not treating animals with the respect that they are due. And when I see animals being treated as secondary to facepainting, circus skills workshops, and garish, noisy rides, I have to agree.

Too many exotic pet shops, and even shows that I have seen in recent months suffer from a similar malaise. They operate on a sensationalist basis, selling things that look imposing to people who are easily impressed by such matters, whether or not they have any likelihood of being able to successfully look after the poor bloody creatures. I have seen so-called specialist shops where animals are kept under completely inadequate conditions, and sold without even the most basic attempt at giving any help to the prospective buyer. One wonders how many of these poor bloody creatures are going to survive for any length of time. This, too gives plenty of grist to the mill of the people who wish to have the sale of all exotic animals banned.

So, does this mean that I have turned my back on my mindset of the past forty years and have joined the Animal Rights brigade. No, of course not. Just because I understand, and in many cases sympathise with, their grievances, and accept that there is a very real problem, does not mean that I agree with their proposed solutions.

For about a hundred years from the mid 19th Century, Natural History was the most popular hobby for people of all ages, in Britain and her Empire. And as I wrote earlier, the great names of zoology and conservation of the 19th and 20th Century were nearly all, originally at least, amateur naturalists, and some - like Gerald Durrell, for example - never attained conventional scientific qualifications. Darwin, as you will read elsewhere in this issue, in an article to mark the bicentennial of his birth, flunked his medical training, took a degree with the intention of becoming a parson, and then became the greatest zoologist of the last 200 years, without a formal zoological qualification in sight, and even I have no zoological qualifications apart from a not very good `O Level` from 1976.

I can imagine a world without the next generation of Jon Downeses in it, but a world without a 21st Century Darwin, Mendel, Linnaeus, or Durrell. That would be unthinkable.

And that is what I believe will happen if our increasingly urbanised and sedentary population are not encouraged to take an active, rather than a passive, interest in the natural world. And this is exactly what I believe will happen if Exotic Petkeeping, and zoos with anything like an appropriate agenda do not continue in this country. And, unless we as a community regulate and police ourselves this is exactly what is going to happen.

It is time not only for a resurgence in the somewhat neglected occupation of the Amateur Naturalist, but it is time for the emergence of the Radical Naturalist. It is time to take a stand against the manifest stupidities and injustices which beset us at every turn. It is time to insist that those who want to keep exotic animals do so for the right reasons; in order to study their behaviour and habits, and to in their own little way add to the sum total of human knowledge. It is time to insist that zoos, petkeepers, and those who - like us - are part of the petkeeping industry treat the animals with which we deal with the respect and awe that they deserve. It is time that we stop treating the Animal Rights extremists as the unquestioned enemy and try to establish a dialogue with them, because although their methodology and beliefs are different to ours, their ultimate intention - to treat the other denizens of the world in which we live with respect and dignity - is the same. And it is time to realise that if we don’t take a stand, and furthermore, take a stand now, then the way of life that we hold dear will not exist for much longer!

I promise that I will not always write editorials of such enormous length, but the changes in this periodical needed to be explained properly, before we can all go further.

Onwards and Upwards,

Jon Downes
Editor, The Amateur Naturalist
North Devon,
February 7th 2009


Little Weasel said...

I think there is something in the air this year, or maybe its just synchronicity, but I have also been thinking about such things, and have been wanting to go back to my interest in Natural History.
I agree with your ideas about Zoos. I do sometimes worrry that some are theme parks, but I suppose there is a difference between a Zoological Garden and an Animal park that can be made. what would be good would be if any place that has a scientific, investigative aspect could be given the title of Zoo(ological Garden), and places that are purely for entertainment could be designated Animal Parks, rather than the nebulous, oh its Nature its educational, approach.
Similar things seem to be lurking in museums, it can be all about the interactive displays and numbers, rather than learning about Natural History.

I've also lurked on Reptile forums, and some people (not all) seem to be all about breeding the most dramatic morph, or owning the most dangerous snake, and this macho attitude is reflected in the nature programming of such channels as Animal Planet/Discovery and National Geographic, its either extreme macho man-vs-nature programmmes with Bear Grylls or sharks, or anthropomorphic stuff with no actual content. I suppose this reflects the commercial pressures on these channels, but if only there were a change in the wholescale attitude of people.

Heh, sorry about the rant, your editorial just chimed with what I have been thinking about recently.

Sarah-Louise Darwin said...

Jon - well said my man. As L.Weasel has said they were thinking along the same lines, so I was thinking very similar thoughts (although I wouldn't be able to enunciate quite as eloquently as you yourself have put it!) I remember as a child keeping snails and woodlice in jam-jars, pestering the teachers at school to have a class pet, and any spare time spent halfway up a tree watching the adventures of caterpillars or laid in the grass watching the antics of ants. It seems these days all children want is to sit in front of their X-Box and kill pixelated enemies; these are tomorrows adults and are sorely lacking in the interests and skills that they will need to keep an interest in the natural world.

Bring back the Ameteur Naturalist - let the kids climb trees and fall out, let them go pond dipping and fall in, and educate them about the wonderful world around us with help from well run zoos and institutions - the world will be a very poor place if they ceased to exist.

Jon Downes said...

Thanks girls :) I appreciate the support. We need to all pull together as a team, and we can make this happen...