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A Zoo in My Family

When the manuscript for my book was doing time in slush piles, an editor suggested I read some other memoirs. Actually, she said "autobiographies," because that was what editors still called them way back then five years ago, especially if they had published successful ones.

I was so clueless it didn't dawn on me that she hadn't the slightest intention of publishing my stuff, and I let my manuscript languish there for a couple of years — YEARS — while I honed it to her annual suggestions. (Note to self: a "friend" in the publishing world is probably not worth much unless you can have sex with thema "friend" in the publishing world is probably not worth much unless you can have sex with them; then, the opportunities broaden accordingly.)

But said editor had her stature for a reason. She asked me if I'd ever read My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. Uh, yeah, I said, only about a hundred times. Because once I was done with my adolescent Addams Family obsession, I shone my love light on the animal kingdom. At 14 I could rattle off all the members of the subfamily Lorinae.

Gerald Durrell was hugely popular in England, where I lived as a teenager. His books sold like crazy, and everyone loved his BBC specials. I paid homage by attempting to pattern my career after his, installing a small bestiary of animals in the bathroom and working summers at the Chessington Zoo as a junior keeper. Enthusiastically inspired by Durrell's fieldwork, I had an image of myself (humanely) bagging (live) specimens in the jungles of Mauritius and New Guinea. I drew animals constantly, from life or from the library of photography books my mother, a sculptor, kept in her studio. In adulthood, I even covered the walls of my kitchen with a Smithsonian-like creation of the animal world.

Anyone who has read my own family memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, will recall my desire to replace my immediate family with that of Charles Addams's; however, when the hormones kicked in, I had to leave Wednesday behind, she not able to develop even an inkling of breast buds, and I switched my familial fantasy to that of the Durrell family. (Affable mother, zero Nazi stepfathers.) When I was 15, I made my mother take me to Durrell's zoo on the island of Jersey. (Okay, "made" is perhaps the wrong word; my mother, far more at ease in the company non-humans, was only too happy to go canoodle with primates and reptiles in the Channel Islands, despite the lack of a tan-bestowing sun.)

I even got to meet Durrell, though it wasn't exactly planned. As we were trawling the main thoroughfare of the zoo, zigzagging between the outside enclosures, there was a commotion, and suddenly a large spotted cat, as in jaguar or cheetah, I can't remember, came streaking towards us. I wasn't concerned; I mean, we were in an alternative zoo after all. But other visitors were screaming like the animal had a fork and knife in its paws. They should be so lucky; it was a gorgeous, gorgeous thing. Behind it ran keepers and whatnot, plus Durrell himself, who apologized once the cat had been sequestered. I was starstruck. He may have been old, but to me he was completely cool — wonderfully erudite and boozy looking, just the way a world famous naturalist and writer should look.He may have been old, but to me he was completely cool — wonderfully erudite and boozy looking, just the way a world famous naturalist and writer should look.

A year ago, an older friend who knows my love for the natural world suggested I read David McCullough's book of portraits, Brave Companions. In particular, the profile of the extraordinary naturalist, Miriam Rothschild, a brilliant, to-the-manor-born woman who began breeding ladybugs at the age of four and went on to achieve the highest honor in British science — without any sort of academic degree.

As a rule, I don't read memoirs. I don't want to be influenced, and I'm insecure enough as a writer without having to wince from the word-beauty of authors like Karr or Walls. Life is sad and hard enough off the written page. So, unless you are going to be funny and candidly enlightening about your bulimia, I'd rather read science. Science makes sense. When a naturalist writes about their life, it resonates with me like church bells to a monk.

÷ ÷ ÷

The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Wendy Burden is a former illustrator, zoo keeper, taxidermist, owner and chef of the bistro Chez Wendy, and served as the art director of a pornographic magazine — from which she was fired for being too tasteful.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  2. My Family and Other Animals
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  3. Brave Companions Used Trade Paper $7.50

Wendy Burden is the author of Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir

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