A Gorilla in the Guest Room by Gerald Durrell
About the author …….Indian students should read Durrell’s stories with keener interest, because this highly acclaimed British naturalist was born in Jamshedpur. John Durrell (1925 -1995) was a multi-faceted personality. He was both an avid watcher of the natural world, as he was an articulate communicator on animal matters. As a TV presenter, he made a name for himself, but like Salim Ali, he loved to wander in the world of flora and fauna. He observed the animals, their habits and habitats, and from this hobby, he derived all his creative energy. Right from his childhood, he took to collecting and rearing myriad species of animals from different parts of the world. He was passionate about the conservation of the animal world, and wrote many stories, travelogues and first-hand accounts of his expeditions to see the animals in the wild. ‘A Gorilla in the Guest Room’ is one such story that centers around the establishment of a zoo.
His childhood stay in Corfu proved to trigger and shape his lifelong pursuit of pleasure in watching, and learning the intriguing lives of animals. The book ‘My Family and Other Animals’ written by him bristles with humour and is lovingly read by young and old alike. As a TV anchor, he produced many shows that were vibrant, entertaining with great educational value.
The story ..
Durrell is a zoo-keeper. Although, he is just a salaried man, his interests in the world of animals and plants go far beyound that. He connects with the animals with great warmth and passion. So, he enjoys his job. He lives with his mother, and wife, Jacquie.
The story starts with the letter of a writer pleading with Durrell to take possession of the Rhesus monkey that had caused considerable inconvenience to their family by its playful antics. The mother had been taken ill by the vigorous jumping around of the growing monkey.
After reading the letter, Durrell concluded that the decrepit zoo needed some good deal of renovation, and a facelift. After all, a zoo has to function as a model sanctuary of animals for the benefit of people. Durrell pondered over the idea of getting rid of the common species occupying the facility with some exotic ones. However, when he sat down to list the possible newcomers, he found that the list ran to three volumes, even excluding the reptiles. Durrell found it difficult to short-list the ones that could be brought in. Around this time, an animal dealer called him to ask if he would be interested to buy a baby gorilla from him.
Looking for the ‘elusive’ gorilla ….
Gorillas don’t proliferate as much as other species do, so they are in rarity. African jungles are their natural habitats, but the continent had been caught in internecine conflicts, illegal trading in animals, and similar other causes that had pushed the gorillas to the edge of extinction. Animal conservation was seldom in the governments’ agenda. No wonder, with fast dwindling numbers, gorillas became too elusive for animal collectors. Durrell was not quite convinced that the dealer was serious about his offer of a baby gorilla. Animal dealers, generally, had pathetic awareness about the species they trade in. So, Durrell assumed that the dealer possibly had a chimpanzee to offer. Nevertheless, he couldn’t dismiss the offer out of hand.
A gorilla is spotted ...
The dealer quoted twelve hundred pounds for the animal. Durell thought for a oment, and conveyed his readiness to cut a deal. He decides that he will inspect the animal at the London airport, and would take it if it was in relatively good shape. Durrell’s mother was excited about the prospect of having a baby gorilla around. Durrell’s wife, Jacquie, however, weighed the idea carefully. She wanted to know the price being paid. Durrell skirted the query stating that gorillas are a rare species to acquire. But, Jacquie insisted on knowing the price. When she knew that the deal had been struck for twelve hundred pounds, she exploded in indignation. She felt, it was too high a price to be paid especially when they already had a large loan to repay to the bank. She said the idea was absurd, and the bank manager would surely refuse to give such a big amount for just a baby gorilla.
Durrell suggested that he could crowd-fund the purchase by approaching the rich and bored inhabitants in the island, who woud find the baby gorilla a good source of entertainment. Jacquie was scathing in her comments about the acquisition idea. Durrell was not deterred by his wife’s strident disapproval. He rang up Hope to ask her for a list of the wealthiest people living in the island. When asked why he needed the list, Durrell explained how he planned to mobilize the twelve hundred pounds for acquiring the baby gorilla through donations from these people. An incredulous Hope laughed off the idea as a crazy one. Finally, after listening to Durrell’s laborious explanations, she gave up, and agreed to give him the list.
Durrell starts fund-raising. …
With the list in hand, Durrell began dialling up the affluent people one by one. First to receive Durrell’s call was Mrs. Mcgurgle. Durrell was at his persuasive best. With not much of haggling, she agreed to pay a part of the procurement cost of the baby gorilla. Durrell smelled success. By lunch time, the collection had touched a tidy 200 pounds. Still, there was the need for a thousand more. Durrell’s mood was upbeat.
Next to be called was one Major Domo, whom Durrell had never met. With some hesitation, he called the Major and explained his project. Quite surprisingly for Durrell, the Major was excited about the idea of having a gorilla as an inmate in the tiny island. Quite readily, he told Durrell to come to him to collect the shortfall amount of a thousand pounds. Durrell was thrilled.
The windfall had caught Durrell completely unawares. Thanking his benefactor profusely, Durrell sprinted to the zoo telling everyone on the way that a baby gorilla would soon arrive to grace the zoo with its presence.
Durrell proceeds to London airport …
Durrell made quick plans to reach the London airport. The fear that the much-prized primate could be an ordinary chipanzee instead of the adorable gorilla lurked in his mind constantly, though. He met the animal trader at the airport. The seller ushered him to the animal enclosure under the aegis of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When the door opened, Durrell’s eyes fell on a few chimpanzees seated on a table and feating on bananas. Durrell’s worst fears had come true. Disappointment was palpable in his face. However, the dealer took him a little more inside and showed him an enclosure that had the cuddly N’Pongo. Durrell had got his prize.
N’Pongo was one and half feet tall, cute, and bubbly. He stood up raising his hand upwards. N’Pongo was considerably much heavier than his size, apparently due to his boney frame and well-developed muscles. His coat had dense chocolate-coloured furs. N’Pongo took to his new master with remarkable ease, making no fuss, nor nuisance. He explored Durrells’s forehead with its fingers. The duo soon got along with ea ch other. The rapport developed in no time. N’Pongo ate the banana from Durrell’s hands gracefully. Durrell paid the amount to the trader, and the duo headed to catch the flight to Jersey.
Durrell and N’Pongo reach their home town. …
The two alighted from the aircraft, and drove to the zoo. During the drive, N’Pongo scanned the landscape both sides. He saw the cattle speed past their car. He was seated comfortably in Durrell’s lap. On arriving at home, Durrel decided to keep N’Pongo in the guest room as his cage was not sill ready. In very short time, N’Pongo endeered himself to Durrell’s mother and wife. They virtually fawned over him. He got some delicacies as welcome snack.
Durrell had an unpleasant experience with a chimpanzee guest earlier. The primate literally destroyed the room’s decor. This time, Durrell kept an eye on N’Pongo, so that he could not mess around the furniture. But, the guest wanted to know his room first. He walked around the place watching everything with keen interest. Happily for Durrell, his guest was well-behaved and didn’t fiddle with anything. Durrell was immensely impressed with his guest’s restraint and demeanour. In due course N’Pongo retired to sleep. By then, he had won the heart of Durrell’s mother’s heart. So impressed was she that she suggested that N’Pongo remain in the house permanently. Chumley, the chimpanzee, had left so much horror behind that Durrell had to turn down his mother’s plea outright.
N’Pongo had the airs of a ‘gentleman’….
N’Pongo did do some little nuisance in the guest room, but that was understandable, given his very young age. As with human toddlers, he used the wall to scribble something, patook of some raspberries on offer, messed up the floor, and damaged the door handle while struggling to open the door. But, all these damages were accepted by Durrell as normal childlike actions from a baby gorilla. Durrell was much more amused, than annoyed.
Durrell discovered that N’Pongo was far more restrained and gentle than a chimpanzee of its age. Chimpanzees revolted when taken into the cage again after an outing, expressing their disgust with visible body language, and angry outbursts. N’Pongo, when encaged, after an outing, seldom protested accepting the restriction on his freedom as normal and necessary. Unlike a chimpanzee of comparable age, N’Pongo remonstrated his fate with remarkable composure. In a short span of time, N’Pongo made his way into the hearts of the visitors, who adored him for demeanour and disposition. In the afternoon, N’Pongo was brought out to the zoo’s lawn where it showed off its playful antics. The visitors just loved to see his acrobatics.
N’Pongo steps into adulthood ..
N’Pongo was growing up. At the age of two, he looked far bigger than what he was when he was brought in. At adulthood, a male needs a mate. Durrell realized it could be cruel to deprive Him from the companionship of his companion. Particularly for the primates, the need is more. ‘The zoo must pay for the second gorilla,’ felt Durrell. Without someone to play with, the apes become troublesome by trying their strengths on humans. By eleven or twelve, a gorilla’s hop can really be very hurtful. Keeping him in seclusion might preempt nuisance, but the loneliness can be very turtuous for the primate. Durrell couldn’t countenance such a tragedy for N’Pongo. But, the zoo could ill-afford a new acquisition.
A female partner is found ..
When Durrell contacted the dealer, he offered a female gorilla a little younger than N’Pongo. It was the best match for the lovelorn N’Pongo. But, the dealer said he wanted fifteen hundred pounds as Africa’s political turmoil had pushed up the prices of jungle animals. Durell knew the price was way too high. He wondered if he could make the dealer agree to take the money in installments. Durrell called him to suggest this, and to his great relief, the trader agreed. As per the arrangement, the trader’s representative would deliver the female gorilla in Jersey in a few days.
The newcomer was named Nandy. The zoo staff were agog with excitement to welcome the new arrival. But, the bank manager was lukewarm to Durrell’s request to give any money for the purpose. Durrell was irritated to see his unhelpful attitude. So, Durrell set out on his funds collection drive, again. Nandy arrived looking hale and hearty, like a damsel with beautiful eyes.
Nandy is wary of humans, understandably. …
Nandy had a deep scar on her head, apparently inflicted by her captor. It was a painful wound that told Nandy to steer clear of human beings. So, she sulked at her new owners when released from her cage. She was kept in a cage for a day to get over the effects of the unsettling change in the environment. Durrell knew it would take about six months to drive the fear of humans from Nandy’s mind.
Nandy enters N’pongo’s cage as expectations soar. …
N’Pongo had thus far assumed he was the lord of the zoo, and could deal with humans in equal terms. He was clueless about the way he would deal with the new cage-mate. Nandy was shy and withdrawn, and N’Pongo appeared detached and disinterested in his new companion. The first twenty four hours went barren and uneventful. The zoo staff came to inspect the two. They stood by with a few buckets of water, brush etc. Seated on a branch, N’Pongo looked aloof and dullard. Nandy appeared apprehensive and distrustful of everyone around her. Apparently, both were sizing up each other.
The first encounter ..
Then something very frightening happened. N’Pngo lunged forward, grabbed Nandy’s hair, pulled it, and then stepped back. The zoo staff were shell-shocked to see such sudden aggression in N’Pongo. They virtually froze in fear. Nandy did react with disgust at such an overture, but by then, N’Pongo had stepped clear of her to a safe distance. N’Pongo had carried the day by asserting himself.
The zoo keepers then offered two plates of delicious juicy fruits, one each to N’Pongo and to Nandy. N’Pongo inspected Nandy’s plate to see if she had been served more. Nandy, peeved at N’Pongo’s earlier hostile pass at her, put on such an angry look that he decided to pull back. In the next half an hour, they ate the fruits with relish maintaining a good distance from one another.
The night fell. N’Pongo slept on the wooden shelf as usual. Nandy, a bit dejected perhaps, slept on the floor. The next day, the duo wanted to explore the order of precedence with regard to the use of the swing, the cross-beam etc. Quite predictably, minor shoving and jostling happened. It looked quite like the way children squabble over things. For the zookeepers, the scene brought great joy, and some relief. By evening, their interaction had shrunk the gulf between them. N’Pongo let Nandy share the wooden shelf with him. Unmistakably, they had cosied up to each other.
N’Pongo and Nandy get along well. ..
Soon, it became clear that the two were made for each other. N’Pongo exhibitted masculine brawn and dominance, where as Nandy was subdued and silent. Despite their wide divergence of nature, their chemistry worked well. The bond seemed to get stronger by the day. N’Pongo would tease Nandy endlessly till she couldn’t take it any more. She would then explode with annoyance at her male partner. The cycle of teasing and reacting angrily continued the whole day.
Rearing worries ……
Acquiring the two gorillas was, no doubt, a feat, but rearing them wasn’t. Keeping them fit and free of ailments needed constant attention. Simple surveillance devices had to be installed in various parts of the zoo to locate the primates at any given time. Unfortunately for Durrell, one of the gorillas developed symptoms of diarhoea. The diseases had returned to them. The news came in when Durrell was having a small party at home. The bad news disrupted the party. However, it was a temporary setback. The pair got over such ailments and grew fast enough, leaving the infections behind.
Calamity strikes …..
While in France for a short duration, Durrell met a BBC man. After some coaxing by Durrell, the BBC man agreed to make a documentary of the N’Pongo-Nandy couple. Elaborate arrangements were made so that the BBC team had enough items to shoot. Unfortunately, just four days before the shoot, N’Pongo appeared to be sick. He became dull and indolent. His usual youthfulness was gone. His food intake dwindled to the barest minimum. The vet had no clue about his illness. Perhaps, a virulent diarhoea had afflicted him. He lost weight in an an alarming pace. He looked emaciated. There was blood in his stool. Things looked grim. The zoo keepers felt the end had come.
Durrell and Jacquie try to rekindle N’Pongo’s appetite ..
Durrell, along with his wife Jacquie went to the market to buy smething that L’Pongo would eat, because making him eat something was the first priority then. They bought some exotic fruits at a high price. While returning, their eyes fell on a shop selling watermelons. Durrell felt N’Pongo might find the fruits appetizing due to its attractive apperance. Durrell bought a good quantity of watermelon and drove back home.
N’Pongo’s condition worsens.
Due to lack of food and dehydration, N’Pongo had become lifeless and still. It was a very sad sight to see. The zoo staff could make N’Pongo ingest some Dspirin and milk. N’Pongo showed no interest to eat the exotic fruits bought for him. He, however, evinced some interest in the watermelon, perhaps because of its flashy pink flesh. He felt the red, soft flesh of the slice of watermelon. The zoo keepers were somewhat happy to see N’Pongo eating the watermelon, although they knew it had little nutrition value except its water. The vet had by now diagnosed his illness as colitis. For this, N’Pongo had to be given some antibiotic. N’Pongo was stubbornly refusing to take any medicine orally, so he had to be injected with the antibiotic.
Efforts to inject antibiotic starts. …
Nandy was isolated, as the first step. N’Pongo was brought out of his cage. But, restraining him down even in such enfeebled state, was a daunting task. Jeremy distracted him with slices of watermelon, while Durrell pushed the syringe into his thigh and hastily injected the fluid. Curiously, N’Pongo appeared not to even feel the prick of the needle. With the antibiotic inside his system, N’Pongo was escorted back to his cage. Some slight change was seen in his condition the next morning, when he was given a second shot of the antibiotic using the same trick of deception. Progress in his condition was very slow and feeble. However, he did drink some skimmed milk — after days of virtual fasting.
Durrell is caught in a bind. ...
Barely a day was left for Durrell’s flight to Paris where an entire production team was being gathered for the shooting of the film. Durrell was perplexed. Aborting the shooting at the eleventh hour would be hugely embarrassing. On the other hand, Leaving behind the ailing N’Pongo would be cruel and imprudent.
N’Pongo bounces back in the last moment …
Quite strangely, N’Pongo seemed to recover quite miraculously. He drank Complan and ate some fruits. With each passing hour, he seemed to get better and better. To make sure that N’Pongo was turning around, Durrell went to see him in the dawn, just a few hours before his 8.30am flight. N’Pongo still looked feeble and faint, although he ate the fruits with relish.
Durrell leaves for France, with N’Pongo in mind. ….
While in the south of France, Durrell continually called the zoo for updates on N’Pongo’s condition. Jeremy informed him that L’Pongo had begun to eat voraciously feasting on the fruits, Complan and eggs. He was back to his old ways.
Durrell returns to see the bubbly N’Pongo again! ….
N’Pongo was on a fast-track recovery mode, gaining appetite, weight, and his jovial spirit. Durrell hugged him warmly. Durrell’s trauma was over, finally. But, the travails he endured in nursing N’Pongo back to health left him rattled and circumspect. Breeding primates in captivity is no monkey business,’ he learnt.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WILL BE POSTED IN DUE COURSE.
Questions & answers …
a. Can you justify Durrell’s extra-ordinary interest in a guerilla? .. No doubt, Durrell was an avid animal lover. He had wanted to enrich his zoo by inducting a gorilla in to its herd. He did succeed in getting one after overcoming formidable odds. The arrival of the gorilla from Africa’s wild lighted up the zoo. However, the excitement soon gave way to considerable anxiety when N’Pongo, the adorable, sprightly gorilla fell sick. It caused great distress to Durrell. With remarkable effort, N’Pongo was brought back from the brink of death. Looking back, the whole episode brings to the fore many moral and ethical issues. Is uprooting a gorilla from its natural habitat desirable? The answer could t best be a very qualified ‘Yes’. Had the gorilla succumbed to its illness, the loss could have left a deep scar in Durrell’s mind. Gorillas relate to humans relatively easily, which makes the separation that more painful. So, in balance, while Durrell must be applauded for his great love for animals, considerable caution needs to be taken before keeping such species in captivity in a zoo.
b. Do you feel capture and sale of such species as gorillas from war-torn Africa is a good idea?.. Africa has been riven by internecine conflict for decades. It has caused deaths, injuries and poverty in large scale. The rich flora and fauna of the continent has not managed to stay unscathed. Forests have been exploited to the extremes, and whatever monetary value could be extracted from it, has been pillaged. Elephants have been killed for the ivory, tigers for their skins, deer for their meat, and live gorillas for decorating zoos. By being a part of this practice, we will be encouraging such cruel and greed-driven capture of animals from their habitats. This is a idea that runs counter to conservation of forest wealth. So, the practice should be curbed.wealth.
Question…“The author says that the zoos must cease to be mere show pieces of animals and start to contribute something towards the conservation of wild life. Elucidate. How does he himself follow this idea? ”
Answer …As an animal lover, Mr. Durrell stands very tall. He adored N’Pongo, and went to extraordinary extent to procure it, safely transport it, and rear it. Durrell had his fingers on N’Pongo’s pulse and felt its pains and ecstasy as if he was a part of his pet gorilla. He made N’Pongo’s initiation to the zoo environment as smooth as was possible, and succeeded to build an intimate rapport with him. When N’Pongo fell sick, Durrell did his best to cure it. He got N’Pongo a female mate, so that the thrill of adolescent romance didn’t elude it.
But, the immense thrill and happiness Durrell derived from his rearing of N’Pongo was marred by anguish, retrospection, and self-doubt. N’Pongo’s battle with its stomach infection drove Durrell to despair, almost to breaking point. He realized gorillas are jungle animals, and uprooting them from their habitats was a cruel and un-natural act. “Jungle environment was the best buffer against infection, and untimely death,” learned Durrell the hard way. N’Pongo recovered, no doubt, but its close brush with death saddened Durrell. From the crisis, Durrell emerged wiser and chastened. He concluded, keeping wild animals in man-made zoos was against the principle of Nature. Such practice is fraught, cruel, and must be abjured.
In a nutshell, Durrell’s experiment with N’Pongo teaches us one very important lesson. Zoos are essential for long term conservation, because these facilities teach humans about animals– their diversity and their role in the ecosystem. Zoos provide us recreational scope. However, it’s a very limited objective. The best way to conserve wild life will be to make the zoo environment as close to that of Nature as possible. The animals should feel they are living in the wild. Overt affection from humans proves more of a provocation and irritant for them, than a concern for their well-being.