September 6, 2008
Wild About Wildlife
When she was a schoolgirl in South Yorkshire Susie Parkin now smiles at the memory she had "millions of cats" and bred up to 10 guinea pigs at once. Sometimes she saw foxes slinking around the Sheffield suburb of Norton Lees where she lived. During holiday visits to the family caravan at Skirlington on the Holderness coast her parents would take her up to Flamborough to watch birds like puffins and kittiwakes. So far, so ordinary the typical household pets and wildlife of growing up in northern England. Even at Leeds University, while studying for her zoology degree, just about the only animals Susie saw regularly were the gerbils she kept while living in the city's Hyde Park student area. But as early as the age of 10 Susie started reading books by the naturalist and conservationist, Gerald Durrell. "I loved his great book, My Family and Other Animals, and became an absolute Durrell devotee," she says, "and at some stage I began to think, 'wouldn't it be wonderful if I could get involved in his work?'" Durrell died in 1995, but when Susie finished her degree last summer she applied online to work as an unpaid volunteer at Durrell's lasting legacy, his safe haven for threatened world wildlife located on Jersey. The 32-acre park hosts more than 130 different species of animals and is visited by about 170,000 people a year. Her voluntary job should have been only for a few months, but in December Susie finally realised the ambition she'd had since childhood and obtained a full-time place as a keeper with the Durrell Trust.From keeping guinea pigs and gerbils, she now finds herself working with some of the world's most critically endangered species of wildlife, some of them on the verge of extinction. "It's my dream job!" she says as she prepares food for the animals. "This is absolutely it now, as far as I'm concerned." Susie, 23, has been given responsibility for looking after lemurs, the long-tailed and often colourful primates that held a particular fascination for Durrell. She is also keeper for a small number of other rare mammals, including aye-ayes, the world's largest nocturnal primate. It has been virtually wiped out in its native Madagascar largely because of a local superstition that seeing it is a bad omen, and for many years until the 1960s it was thought to be extinct.Most of the animals live in enclosures which as closely as possible copy their own natural habitats in the wild, and have a huge amount of freedom.Susie's centre of operations is a small one-roomed building known as the lemur kitchen. This is where she prepares special meals to try and replicate as closely as possible the food her animals would find in the wild. The black and white ruffed lemurs and the ring-tailed lemurs, for example, start with a breakfast of apple, plum and banana and also get a morning "browse" of plants like hawthorn, hazel, bramble, sweetcorn and sunflower. Then at midday they get a forage feed of raisins, peanuts, berries, papaya and seasonal flowers.Their main feed of the day consists of more fruit and vegetables, each animal getting a carefully measured amount plus daily extras like a couple of potatoes, which the ruff lemurs particularly adore.The aye-aye diet presents one of the biggest challenges. Their forage feed, which is given to them each day at 2pm, consists of live mealworms which are placed in logs, or dozens of wax moth larvae put inside hollow bamboo shoots. This allows them to use their long, thin middle finger to pull out the food, just as they would in the wild.Fortunately, lemurs have pretty clean habits, spending most of the day grooming themselves and each other, and hate to live in dirt. This means that Susie's morning tidy-up of their enclosures is fairly quick compared with cleaning out other wildlife at Durrell. Monkeys, in particular, are famous for the mess they make. Recently, one of the few red ruffed lemurs died and Susie felt devastated. But her spirits have been lifted by the belief that one of the 10 Alaotran gentle lemurs in her care is probably pregnant.Eventually, Susie hopes to get involved in the Durrell Trust's conservation and research programmes abroad."We travel to places like Madagascar. I'd love to go out there and see lemurs in the wild. The work I might do is things like tracking and counting, because local people don't tend to know where the lemurs are."Gerald Durrell's original vision of a refuge for endangered animals on Jersey has expanded to make the trust one of the foremost conservation bodies working around the globe. Coincidentally, it focuses much of its efforts on other islands, especially Madagascar, Mauritius and the Camore group in the Indian Ocean, the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, and several islands in the Caribbean. Caron Glover of the Durrell Trust says they concentrate their expertise in small areas where they can make the greatest difference. Remote islands tend to have wildlife which is found nowhere else, and if a species is endangered there is a high risk of it eventually becoming extinct. "But saving something from extinction isn't a two-minute job. Actually, it needs work that goes on pretty much forever. So we take our work to local communities and help them to restore the habitats of these species."Gerald Durrell's vision at Jersey was to create what he described as a "stationary ark" in which animals in need of protection could be kept and bred. Today it is thought that his trust has maintained the survival chances of more than 30 endangered species. Among the animals that Durrell has helped save are the pied tamarin, the black lion tamarin and the golden lion tamarin from Brazil. The latter would have become extinct in the wild had not captive animals been bred and reintroduced back into their native habitat. Susie also looks after the tamarins at Durrell Wildlife and says: "I definitely feel we are actually achieving something with the animals here. Everything is as natural as possible for them, but it's just the tip of the iceberg really in terms of what we do."Susie Parkin joined the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust by volunteering to do unpaid work at its Jersey headquarters. Anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps can visit www.durrell.org and click on the "get involved" link. Durrell Wildlife is at La Profonde Rue, Trinity, Jersey, JE3 5BP, Channel Islands, open daily 9.30am. As a charity, it depends on ticket purchases and donations to support its animal work in Jersey and around the globe. Details of how to help are on the website, or telephone 01534 860000.
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