Living between three different places across two different countries, my books are scattered all over the place. The few I do keep with me seem to have a recurring theme of animals, travel and the natural world. These are my top 5 summer wild reads, hopefully to suit all tastes.
Menagerie Manor by Gerald Durrell
An easy, conversational and unputdownable read. You feel like he is in the room with you relating his humorous and at times heart-wrenching stories of the humble beginnings of Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey.
The book traces the much loved and respected naturalist Gerald Durrell achieving his lifelong ambition of founding a private sanctuary for the most vulnerable and endangered species. We meet the characters that shaped the first incarnation of this now world-renowned conservation trust and see just how much these animals meant to Durrell and his team.
‘A world without birds, without forests, without animals of every shape and size, would be one that I, personally, would not care to live in…’
Emperor tamarins, binturongs, bearded lizards, chinchillas, beautiful touracous, Frisky the Mandrill and Trumpy the grey-winged Trumpeter & true manager of the zoo, greet you within the first few pages as you speed through the unpredictable and messy affair that is an average working day at the zoo. Food is prepared, donations are given by the people of Jersey who take the new park into their hearts, medicine is prepared and administered and spat out and given again and thrown up. Creatures are born, some pass on and a team of cheerful and explicit charatcers keep the zoo ticking around 24 hours a day.
You’ll meet runaway tapirs, tricky porcupines and gorillas who take over homes and hearts, with the assuring and warm voice of Durrell guiding you through every page.
The book is fuelled by dedication, passion and an eye for moments of humour even amongst the bleakest of situations – it’s truly infectious and can only ignite similar feelings in its readers. The fashion of late to tarnish all zoos and wildlife parks with the same scathing opinion is well and truly diminished in the novel.
As Durrell’s legacy continues, Mammal Keeper Will Masefield writes in the afterword:
The presence of endangered animals [in zoos] is not a tourist gimmick, but serves to foster an understanding of their plight in visitors and hone our understanding of what these animals need to survive and thrive, so we can share this knowledge with those working with them in the wild.
A bid for conservation and real progress across the underdogs and lesser-known endangered species on our planet begins here and continues wth the legacy of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, with many, many others following suit.
The best way to stimulate and engage a wider audience is to draw them in with domestic tales – ‘animal relationships’ of mating for life, of holding grudges, of personalities and characters, and not to shy away from the fact that although anthropomorphising wild creatures is frowned upon today, master storytellers like Durrell will always have the advantage. First to captivate and then using the natural history in the background, to build up an insightful picture into each and every one of the first ambassador species to arrive in Jersey, and the people caring for them during these first tentative years.
The Shark and The Albatross by John Aitchison
You can watch as many documentaries and landmark series as you like, but never will you fully understand the images on your screen better than by sitting down and losing yourself in a book by their very creator, wildlife cameraman John Aitchison.
Tiger sharks, the elusive lynx and great leopard seals – all beautifully depicted in the pages, whether polar expeditions or peregrines in the middle of New York City this is one special book.
Each chapter travels thousands of miles across the globe and tracks the beginning of monumental journeys, sometimes alone, sometimes with a team, through weather, wind and wilderness to capture sometimes just 10 or so seconds of the images that come to life on our TV screens.
Accompanied by striking images, and the ‘behind the scenes of behind the scenes’ shots that speak louder than any narrator ever could, this is definitely one for natural history fans and camera enthusiasts alike. Easy to dip into, one chapter is a complete circle, tracing the efforts made not only by the production team but the local guides and the story of the individual animals themselves. We are given a first hand insight – albatross chicks choking on the gluttonous mountain of plastic waste we produce each year, brought to them by parents mistaking it for food – starving polar bears lost in the summer struggles of the Arctic, ice melting, seas rising. The book is not without its mishaps and great authentic humour, but also provides a strong message for our fragile world.
‘We all face choices about how much we care…about how to share the planets resources. We can make them consciously or we can drift along, half asleep. It is not whether we prefer predators or prey , it’s whether we are on nature’s side or against it: whether we want the shark and the albatross, or neither.’
As a subtitle it reads, ‘Travels with a camera to the ends of the Earth’, and if there’s anywhere you want to let your mind wander on these warm summer days surely it has to be there.
The Aye-Aye and I by Gerald Durrell
The book I have just recently finished, and almost missed by stop on the train more times than I can count. A trip into the heart of Madagascar, vividly recounting the quest for some of the most enigmatic and curious creatures on our planet. Durrell’s reads are such genuine pleasures that I have to include him twice on the list. Together with his wife Lee, Durrell leads an expedition to one of the most unique islands on Earth – sitting proud off the Eastern Coast of Africa is Madagascar, home to a myriad of species you won’t be able to find anywhere else in the world. Racing to save the Malagasy Giant Jumping Rats, Gentle Lemurs and the elusive Aye-Aye from extinction the book charts a series of highs and lows on their journey, and highlights the importance of such life-saving breeding programmes.
Put aside notions of the animated film with King Julian, vicious slash and burn agriculture is crippling the island and this ecological destruction is noted in great detail, ideally in the hope that we sit up and take notice. We meet the enchanting Malagasy people, and the book tries to help us understand why it sometimes appears they hold their exquisite natural world in such scant regard. Along the way, any living thing that the team encounters is followed with an insightful, often humorous and thoughtful commentary by Durrell himself. A troop of sifaks dancing across the canopy, the notorious fosa – sleek, elegant and dangerous, charming flat-tailed tortoises and even the fly population are all brought to life with such passion and colourful description.
This is a journey I wish I could take, if only to get to see the beautiful Aye Aye with its mythical-like quality in its natural, albeit dwindling habitat. Huge saucer eyes and even bigger ears, electric-shocked black fur and that long, spindly finger ever tapping and searching for juicy grubs. If I could recommend a favourite on this list it would definitely be this book.
Cat Sense by John Bradshaw
Whether you share your home with a ginger Tom or a petite Persian this is a book you have to read. As one of the leading animal behaviour experts, John Bradshaw provides a look at the very beginning of our companionship with cats over 4000 years ago in Egypt up to the modern day.
Why do cats get stuck up trees? What do they feel about humans? What makes them purr, what makes them hiss? Questions are answered and myths overturned about these often misunderstood animals.
Bradshaw has a positive outlook, and throughout is encouraging us all to look after our beloved pets a little better, to get to know them and understand what really makes them happy. The aloof, cold-hearted image of felines in our homes doesn’t mean they don’t have a specific set of needs, and a quick glance into this book demonstrates how we can begin to accommodate these a little better. It delves into the complex world of feline behaviour, includes a chapter The World According to Cats and touches on training, health, welfare & wellbeing. With tales and stories and beautiful illustration throughout, this is a perfect read for any animal lover.
We Bought A Zoo by Benjamin Mee
Please don’t think of the Matt Damon/Scarlett Johansson love affair set in the sickly sweet hearty surroundings of unnamed America. The real story, the grit and determination against all odds, the proper hard work and heartbreak comes from the South of our own country. This is the restoration story of Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon. When it’s not been tarted up for Hollywood this true story provides a beautiful and engaging narrative.
Similarities could be drawn to one of my other choices, essentially the beginnings of a zoo. However the pair are so different and the personal voice so genuine in Mee’s writing that this is definitely worthy of my list.
A dilapidated zoo and over two hundred animals facing displacement, Mee saw the potential in his new project and pushed against the tide to create something special. Put all preconceptions aside and please go along for the ride on the birth of the now thriving Dartmoor Zoological Park.
Published by Kirsty Grant