Birds, Beasts & Relatives
How Memphian Lee McGeorge Durrell married into one of Britain's literary first families and along the way became a zookeeper in the Channel Islands.
Lee Durrell feeding Chico, a red-collared lemur, Berenty, Madagascar, 1974
photograph by R. J. Russel
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Native Memphian Lee Durrell, formerly Lee McGeorge, is currently the Honorary Director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, an international charity with the global mission of saving species from extinction. This organization is based on the island of Jersey, a British Crown Dependency in the Atlantic Ocean located 100 miles south of mainland Britain and 14 miles from the French coast.
How McGeorge got so well placed all the way “across the pond” is an inspiring story. After graduating from St. Mary’s School here, and then Bryn Mawr College, she went to Duke University in 1971 for a graduate program to study animal behavior. It was there that she met the much older (and world-renowned) English naturalist and author, Gerald Durrell (1925-1995), who was traveling in the States on a lecture tour. A trans-Atlantic romance blossomed, and McGeorge married him in her family’s garden here in Memphis in 1979 “on a carpet of wild strawberries and violets,” as her husband Gerry later described the nuptials. With this union an extraordinary partnership was born.
The facts of Gerald Durrell’s life are easy to come by. Born in India in 1925 (his father was a British engineer), he moved with his widowed mother and siblings in 1928 to Corfu, where as a young boy he spent many happy hours studying the Greek island’s fascinating wildlife. He memorably describes these adventures in his uproarious, laugh-out-loud classic memoir, My Family and Other Animals. It should be noted, too, that his older brother, Lawrence Durrell, was the author of the Alexandria Quartet, the four books of which are considered among the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
Once grown and on the path of becoming one of the world’s foremost naturalists, as well as a best-selling author on the subject — his autobiographical bestsellers include The Drunken Forest (1956), A Zoo in My Luggage (1960), and Birds, Beasts and Relatives (1969) — Gerry set up the Jersey Zoological Park (now Durrell Wildlife Park) in 1959. Forward thinking for his time, Durrell intended his park to be “a zoo with a difference,” a place that would be dedicated to saving species from extinction where he would establish a breeding sanctuary.
As it turned out, the island of Jersey, with its pleasant climate, welcoming citizens, and many tourists, was the perfect place for locating his 25-acre wildlife park. Then in 1963, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (later re-named the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) was established to take to the next level the work that Gerald Durrell had begun, and expand it around the world. For short, the Trust came to be known simply as the “Durrell” after its founder. The park on Jersey flourished throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and its profits were funneled back into the Trust to support its wildlife-conservation mission.
After her husband’s death in 1995, Lee stayed on in Jersey, succeeding her husband as Honorary Director of the Trust. Today she plays an important ambassadorial role both in Jersey and oversees and maintains a key position on the Trust’s Board.
I had the privilege of sitting down to talk with Lee Durrell earlier this year while she was on one of her highly anticipated annual visits to Memphis. Her enthusiasm is “wildly” catching as she speaks of all the exciting things to see at the Wildlife Park — from gorillas, bears, and orangutans to tamarins, marmosets, and lemurs to frogs, snakes, and lizards. In this special place, she says, “many of the most endangered animal species in the world find sanctuary.”