I’m sitting here in this aviary, surrounded by extremely rare birds. Outside I can hear the wind and occasional flurries of rain, but we are protected here, the birds and I. When the sun comes, many of them sing. Others are content to just sit. A peacock strolls past my feet. A Nicobar Pigeon regards me from a nearby branch. It’s the closest living relative to the dodo. It’s astonishing here, and there isn’t another soul.
This place is all about the dodos. Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust was it’s name when I was a child. Or The Dodo Trust. They call it Jersey Zoo now as it’s much easier to get tickets sold with a familiar word like “zoo”. But it’s not a zoo really. It doesn’t exist to show us animals. It’s a captive breeding program. The dodo is an emblem, as we weren’t quick enough to stop it becoming extinct. The intention is to try to replenish wild populations of other such creatures. Like this Nicobar Pigeon.
Most of the enclosures are vast, with plenty of places for the animals to hide. I didn’t get any luck with the Andean Spectacled Bear, but the orang-utans were out after the rain. “Don’t drop things into the water,” it says near the terrapins. And what I love is that the sign is enough. They aren’t putting up spikes and CCTV, and there isn’t a young man threatening us when we walk in. There is still TRUST here of sorts, borne of the huge free spirit of the man who made this all possible, Gerald Durrell. Ok so the Aye-Ayes are locked because we can’t be trusted not to lick each other in the darkness. But mostly this is open and with a surprising lack of neurosis.
A day like this is always best. Rain blows over here fast, and sunshine clouds over just as quickly. But the water in the air and the fact it’s Monday has discouraged all but the foolhardy from coming here to be with the animals. As a result, it’s peaceful and they aren’t flooded. The more anxious animals might pop their heads out when it’s like this – the screaming kids are at home on the Nintendo. It’s just me. I had a sandwich under the quiet ancient scrutiny of a gorilla. Now I’m sitting with these birds, and I’ve been still enough that they are singing without concern. It’s beautiful.
Rare trees everywhere, running water through the enclosures, armies of staff strimming the hedges and going round back to feed and breed. A book drop. A second hand shop. This isn’t just Durrell money now. Every bench has a plaque. People find peace and wonder here, they see that it’s making a positive change, and when they die the coffers fill and even more becomes possible. I always loved it here and I have a feeling it will be a sanctuary for centuries to come.
When I was a child there were cheetahs here for a while. Black Rhinoceros. Tapir. Snow Leopards. There was an angry old monkey that used to live on a pirate ship. One of the gorillas, Jambo, became a celebrity after looking after a kid that fell into the enclosure. It was on John Craven’s Newsround. It’s still possible to fall in with gorillas, thank God. There are some places that haven’t yet been killed by the dead-eyed safetyarmy. Nobody has fallen in of course, but you could do it if you tried.
The Nicobar Pigeon has started to roll its throat now. It vibrates right through me, a sound older than we are. We brought our death in the name of rats to Nicobar on ships, as we did to Mauritius and so many other places. We are burning out orang-utans for Palm Oil to bind together our sugary snacks. We really have got too clever and we are far too good at dissociating our convenience from the larger effects. At least some of us, like Durrell, are using what they have to try to redress the balance. We could all do more.
I’m going to sit with these birds a while.