On the Acquisition of Aye-ayes

The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a lemur, a strepsirrhine primate native to Madagascar that combines rodent-like teeth with a long, thin middle finger to fill the same ecological niche as a woodpecker. It is the world’s largest nocturnal primate, and is characterized by its unusual method of finding food; it taps on trees to find grubs, then gnaws holes in the wood and inserts its elongated middle finger to pull the grubs out. From an ecological point of view the Aye-aye fills the niche of a woodpecker as it is capable of penetrating wood to extract the invertebrates within.  (Wikipedia, accessed July 16, 2010)

On the island of Jersey, in the English Channel, I met an aye-aye. It was in a dark enclosure; you had to walk through an airlock of sorts, or more accurately a lightlock, a bit like the entrance to a photographic darkroom. The zookeepers had shifted the circadian rhythm of the aye-aye, the world’s largest nocturnal primate, so that it would be awake while visitors were present during the day. No one goes to a zoo to see a sleeping aye-aye, obviously. The zoo (they didn’t want to call it a zoo, you understand) was the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Wildlife Park, founded in 1959 as the Jersey Zoo. It contained the private collection of a gentleman called Gerald Durrell (pronounced like “squirrel”), famed author of “My Family and Other Animals,” which chronicles a portion of Mr. Durrell’s fascinating and privileged childhood, spent on the Greek island of Corfu with an array of odd characters including his brother Lawrence Durrell, a literary giant in his own right.

My host on the island of Jersey was one Lee Durrell, second wife and widow of Mr. Durrell, a primatologist specializing in lemurs who studied at Duke University, North Carolina. She had taken on an inflected British accent during her time overseas, and offered me tea from an electric teakettle in a massive living room whose circumference was outlined by bookshelves full of translated editions of Gerald’s books and artwork from all over the world. He was, above all, a collector; he began his professional life by organizing expeditions to far-flung locales in search of specimens for zoos. His most prized collection was that of the animals housed in the zoo at which I was a guest, making me a brief addition to that collection, if we extend the descriptor. I spent two nights in a mansion turned dormitory for the International Training Centre, in a room thoughtful enough to contain a built-in shelving unit perfect for books, magnifying glasses, binoculars, and found objects.

At the close of my interview with Ms. Durrell, she displayed a hand-carved wooden ark which had been a gift from her late husband. Approximately the size of an old tabletop vacuum-tube radio, it was immaculately detailed, featuring a beautiful array of carefully painted animals, including a couple of lemurs not quite to scale (lemurs had brought the two together) and a small man and woman modeled after the Durrells. Gerald had an obsession with the Noah’s Ark metaphor, titling several of his books after it: his first, The Overloaded Ark, and later The Stationary Ark, Ark on the Move, The New Noah, The Ark’s Anniversary. Lee even got into the act, titling her book on conservation, “The State of the Ark.” The difficulty with the Ark metaphor, of course, is when the Ark stops being a time capsule, a tool for the preservation of species, and starts to become a museum, or, worse, a collection of artifacts forever hidden from the world which begat them. Living artifacts, of course, but if the ostensible purpose of the Jersey Zoo is to allow endangered animals a chance to breed in peace, then what happens when said animals bear no offspring? Expensive foreign jewels on display on an island described by my cab driver as the sort of place where, “People own Lamborghinis but can’t drive them over 60 kph because none of the roads on the island are long enough.” The sort of place where a global elite would choose to station their fourth, or possibly fifth, vacation house. Purposefully rustic yet entirely comfortable houses bordering old orchards and sea-cliffs and Jersey cattle ranches, where everyone agrees to be terribly agreeable because very little is found wanting.

To be fair, Mr. Durrell wanted to save the world, and he inspired legions of people to take up the cause. He was afraid the planet’s exotic animals would become extinct and believed that they needed to be rescued. He developed comprehensive captive breeding programs, studying in detail the conditions required for each species to feel comfortable enough in captivity to get it on. It was the ecological philosophy of his time, and it was revolutionary. Durrell invented the “modern” zoo, transformed the old menagerie from a place where beautiful birds and big cats were left to wither in small metal boxes into an oasis of life, where expanses of grass and custom-built forests acted as surrogate habitats. It was the first zoo where a visitor might go and have to actually look for the animals. He built enclosures that were made for animals, not people, and he was able to breed several species successfully and reintroduce them into the wild. As modern environmentalism took hold, the captive breeding philosophy was practically abandoned in favor of what would now be described as a holistic approach toward at-risk species, beginning with a long, hard look at habitat destruction and extending into relationships with other animals, plants, food sources, and other, as-yet-unknown aspects of their ecosystems. What we all realized too late was that you can’t reintroduce a dying species back to a dying forest.

I learned at least two important lessons on the island of Jersey: that the lives of the wealthy appear to be completely different from my own, and that the world’s doors are thrown open if you claim to be doing research for a book. Whether I end up actually writing a book on the childhood experiences of naturalists is immaterial; merely walking down that path enabled me to see other paths, previously invisible. It led me to a forgotten corner of the University library, where I discovered Jean-Henri Fabre and his poetic descriptions of praying mantids. It led me to E.O. Wilson, and Haeckel, and Charley Harper. If I trace the path back far enough, it might take me to a beautiful book bequeathed to me by my first mentor teacher Mrs. Fairlee, as she was cleaning out her classroom library before retiring. The Amateur Naturalist, written by Lee and Gerald Durrell, which is nothing if not the backstage pass to an unrestricted curiosity about the living things all around us. Including, but not limited to, an odd little big-eyed nocturnal primate with a very long middle finger called an aye-aye.

Image from http://www.dailyartisan.com

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