'A love letter to Jersey Zoo'

Stephen Le Quesne

By Stephen Le Quesne

THIS is not a topic I am keen on writing about because it’s a minefield and I know that I do not have all the facts, only my own personal experiences and opinions. I am going to write about this topic because it is very close to my heart and for many years Jersey Zoo was a huge part of my life.

I feel it is an important subject because our biodiversity continues to fall, our climate continues to warm and there is no major public outcry, no mass movement to tackle these issues and make the urgent changes needed before it is too late.

I am not here to judge anyone, or use Gerald Durrell’s legacy for my own needs. I am writing to give an insight into how the Zoo has changed, its importance to me and how I miss it.

Maybe what I write here will make a difference to how the organisation runs in the future, maybe it will not.

My story with Jersey Zoo started in 2001, when I volunteered in the bird kitchen, chopping fruit for the animals and lending a hand with more physical tasks within the bird department.

I still remember the chats, the cups of tea, the warmth of the place, and of the staff who were there, especially as I was so incredibly nervous at the beginning.

I did this every Sunday for about six years, getting to know the staff, the animals and some of the regular volunteers. I then started to help within the mammals section, with the orang-utans, which mainly consisted of mucking out the indoor enclosures and helping to prepare their breakfast, lunch and dinner.

From this point, I was a firm fixture at the Zoo, visiting when I could as a member, saying hello to the staff, checking in on the animals and spending hour after hour watching the orang-utans, reading books and writing in my journal.

When my personal life was turbulent and my wellbeing at its lowest, the Zoo and its staff were there to help me find my way again and the animals reminded me why I was on this planet. All I wanted to do was to protect them (and still do).

It was the warmth and friendliness that I loved and, as time went on, I began to volunteer at the Gerald Durrell Museum and within the marketing department, having the absolute privilege of helping to digitise Gerald’s photographic archive.

My last chapter with the Zoo was when I helped give Chris Packham a tour around the enclosures with Lee Durrell and her partner. It was around the time I started with BBC Springwatch and it was quite a surreal experience. I could listen to Lee and Chris for hours with their detailed knowledge of science and nature.

However, I slowly became disillusioned with the Zoo. It became colder and I started to doubt its mission. I became confused as to what it was trying to be.

I think it has fallen into the trap of many environmental NGOs, in that it has forgotten about the people who built its foundations and the core principles that spoke to them.

It has not really changed how it communicates and engages with the public to reflect how society has slowly become more disconnected from the natural world. The impression I now get from the Zoo is one of focusing too much on income streams, too much on corporate relationships and not enough on people and how wildlife and nature can improve people’s lives.

As an organisation which was the extension of one of our greatest conservationists, it has struggled with Gerald’s legacy (as any organisation would) and how to move forward without him. To move forward from the current situation, there needs to be deep soul searching, a lot of listening and a realisation that there are a lot of hurt individuals who feel as they do for a reason. Having just one person say there is a “toxic culture” is one too many.

As a conservationist, I cannot describe how lucky we are to have the legacy and presence of Gerald Durrell in the Island. He was one of the best. He changed conservation, he changed the perception of zoos and yes, he had his demons, but he was real, and people could connect to him.

They wanted to work with him, learn from him and were in awe of his passion and knowledge. The Zoo needs to exude that warmth, but to do that it needs to employ the right people and these individuals need to truly understand who Gerald Durrell was and what his legacy truly is.

Jersey Zoo has been taken in a direction where it aims to be like any other zoo, but it never was and never has been like any other zoo. So many people loved it because it was one of a kind, created by a one-of-a-kind. This is what the animals and the natural world need once again.

  • Stephen Le Quesne is a naturalist, conservationist, forest school leader and nature connection advocate.

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