Farewell, ‘Just Jeremy’

Jeremy Mallinson, who was director of the Trust for more than three decades and right-hand man to Gerald Durrell, sadly passed away earlier this year. Honorary Director, Lee Durrell, pays tribute to her dear friend Jeremy, an extraordinary member of the zoo community.

It is hard to say goodbye to Jeremy Mallinson, a legend in his lifetime as Director of Jersey Zoo, right-hand man to Gerald Durrell, inspirational leader to conservationists young and old, beloved colleague and a true gentleman. Jeremy was best man at my wedding to Gerry 41 years ago and remained one of my closest friends. With his passing at age 83 on 2nd February 2021, the world is a poorer place.

There are so many things to say about this extraordinary man. I shall let him speak for himself through the many phrases he used, which became familiar and endearing to his staff and friends.

‘Work is much more fun than fun’, a Noel Coward quote that Jeremy kept on a sign on his desk, probably best describes Jeremy’s career. He was utterly devoted to his job at Jersey Zoo, more a vocation than a job. It began in 1959, the year we opened, when he was taken on as a ‘temporary’ keeper and ended with his retirement in 2001. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Zoological Director of the zoo and the Trust in 1972 and Director in 1995.

Jeremy was a traditional zoo director, doing his rounds every morning without fail, popping in on animal and office staff alike, who said they could set their watches by his arrival. He said he liked to ‘keep his finger on the pulse’. He was a hands-on animal man, having a remarkable rapport with many of the animals in the early days, from the cheetahs, Peter and Paula to the gorillas, N’Pongo and Nandi. I remember walking around the zoo with him on Christmas Day, the only time the zoo was ever closed, taking titbits to the animals as ‘presents’, and Jeremy would speak gently to each creature in turn.

Another favourite phrase was ‘to lead by example’. Even after he became Zoological Director, he would pitch in with the cleaning, feeding, catch-ups, maintenance and other tasks at the zoo, but invariably wearing a collar and tie!

Apart from daily life at the zoo, Jeremy found fun in his active contribution to various zoo and conservation bodies around the world. He was a highly valued participant, described by the venerable Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG) as “a master diplomat who could facilitate conversations about the trickiest of subjects.” It was this approach that led Jeremy to become a pivotal figure in the management of great apes in British and Irish zoos and in the conservation of the tamarins of Brazil.

Yet another aspect of Jeremy’s work that he loved doing was the science of conservation. His phrase ‘good decisions are based on good science’ resounded frequently around the zoo. He authored hundreds of articles for scholarly and popular publications, many of which appeared in the Trust’s in-house scientific journal, of which he was also the editor. The Dodo published the work of Trust staff at the zoo and around the world, and Jeremy ensured it was circulated to hundreds of zoos and conservation organisations.

Another favourite phrase was ‘to sow the seeds of awareness’. Jeremy was a master at this, as revealed in the tribute from a group of our Conservation Academy graduates from India: “We have gained much from his wide-ranging insights and experience, and he has mentored many Indian trainees personally and professionally over the years…”

Jeremy was once described as a ‘quiet academic gentleman’, much to his and Gerry’s amusement. But he could be stubborn when he needed to be; one shining example concerning the construction of the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo in 1980. A section of the huge wall detached itself after a period of heavy rain, lurching dangerously inward. Jeremy held firm to the view that the builders were responsible, and finally, their insurers paid in full to put it right.

He often said he was a ‘disciple of Gerald Durrell’. Indeed, he was, with his unshakable belief in the value of captive breeding for conservation. But he was more than a disciple – he was a pioneer in turning Gerry’s vision into practical actions. He developed the detailed animal record-keeping system for Jersey Zoo, used until standardised international systems were established in the 1970s; he insisted that the animals of endangered species held in zoos should legally belong, not to the zoos, but to the governments of their countries of origin; he urged zoos to collaborate, not compete, on conservation actions. He believed that conservation efforts should be ‘multifaceted’ and ‘cross-pollinated’, i.e., apply the appropriate knowledge and best techniques from all disciplines.

Jeremy himself was ‘multifaceted’. He was a music lover, a writer of fiction and non-fiction, a world traveller and a bon viveur with a grand sense of humour and adventure. As a schoolboy, he once placed a chamber pot atop the Deanery flagpole at his college in Canterbury; as a zoo director, he would play April Fool’s jokes on his staff.

Jeremy was the recipient of numerous honours, including the OBE in 1997 for services to conservation. Most recently, he received the Ulysses S Seal Award for Innovation in Conservation, which meant a lot to him, as he knew Ulie Seal well and worked with him on the CPSG for 40 years.

In spite of the many plaudits, Jeremy was unassuming and unpretentious. From one of his staff: “His polite, gentlemanly manner just seemed to add to his status... people listened to him. He was also a humble man… always approachable and hugely popular. I certainly never heard anyone say a bad word about him!”

His diffidence was demonstrated each time he visited the flat where Gerry and I lived at the zoo. Invariably you would hear a soft knock on the door and then a voice calling out ‘Just Jeremy’. Gerry fondly described his right-hand man in a book chapter entitled ‘Just Jeremy’, which so impressed one Indian schoolboy that he would shout ‘Just Jeremy’ before entering his family home in Kolkata. He eventually attended our Conservation Academy and was able to meet his hero. His recent tribute speaks of the “impeccable courtesy of this very fine gentleman… One of the nicest people I have ever been privileged to meet and one of the animal kingdom’s great champions.”

So many of our extended Durrell family will miss ‘Just Jeremy’ immensely.