by Gerald Durrell
Gerald Durrell was an animal collector and wildlife conservationist. He began his career working in the Whipsnade Zoo (in England) during the 1940's. A Bevy of Beasts tells of his early apprenticeship there. The book mostly describes his experiences working with the animals and amusing incidents which occurred. His fellow keepers were colorful characters to say the least. Most of them had little factual knowledge about the animals, but would make things up to impress the visitors. Some of the more interesting passages include Durrell quoting passages out of old books full of misconceptions about animals, then countering them with his own careful observations. I enjoyed reading this book, it has an easy style which is entertaining and moves quickly. But a few things puzzled me. Like why the zoo had husky dogs on display. Petting-zoo areas with livestock make sense to me, but dogs?
Other parts where he described animals unfamiliar to me, and remarked upon their scarce numbers, saddened me. I looked them up and found out that many are still extremely threatened or exist now only in captivity: the Arabian oryx, borneo rhino, anoa (a small kind of buffalo), white-tailed gnu (or black wildebeest) and Pere David's deer among them. I appreciated reading about how while at Whipsnade the author came to realize the role zoos take in conservation efforts, especially with captive breeding programs and education. The last chapter closes with Durrell realizing it is time to move on with his plans and leave the zoo so he can pursue his dream of collecting animals. An epilogue describes in brief that at time of its publication he had in fact established his own zoo, lays out its mission, and asks readers to donate money. This plug at the end of the book annoyed me at first. Then I read in an online biography that Durrell had run out of money because when collecting he treated the animals better than his competitors, which wasn't as profitable. He began writing about his experiences in order to gain people's interest and sympathy for the plight of wildilfe, and secure more funds.
About halfway through the book it began to feel vaguely familiar to me. Some scenes in particular, like one where a bear fills his pool with hay. When I had to look up an unfamiliar word - mangold- I knew for sure. I instantly recognized the definition, but know I've never encountered that word anywhere else! I must have read A Bevy of Beasts once before and simply forgotten. This is one of those books which changed titles when it crossed the ocean. The copy I have takes its title from the first chapter; its European publication is called Beast in My Belfry, which is the title of the last chapter.
Rating: 3/5 ........ 253 pages, 1973