I was in the room at the top of the orangutan enclosure at Durrell. A small figure in orangey fur was considering me from the other side of the wire mesh. Her eyes were bright and intelligent as she assessed me. Then she offered me her greatest prize, the slice of orange she held in one hand. This wasn’t generosity, it was a calculated attempt at a bargain, for in the room where I was helping to put out food there was something she prized more. I think it was peanuts, which normally she acquired when she returned something she had managed to pick up, like a brush, when the keepers were busy.
This was Gina who died recently. She was the orangutan matriarch, a small creature, compared to her male companion. And she was growing old, the mother of many youngsters, so I only saw her briefly on my latest visit, but she has always been there in past years when I’ve gone. Perhaps she wasn’t as noticeable or striking as the male, but she was always present, always curious. It was Gina who stood in the high connecting tunnel that ran between the indoor enclosure and their island world outside, staring intently down at the bald head of a man below, who was staring just as fixedly at the male orangutan in front of him. As the man moved away, Gina’s eyes followed him until he was out of sight. As she looked back, her eyes fleetingly caught mine, aware that I’d been watching her. She often did glance at me when I was there, a quick look, full of experience, one individual acknowledging another.
She wrote under the pseudonyms of Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, creating characters that I know as well as my friends, new worlds that I can enter at will and where I feel at home. I return to her books time and time again, just for pleasure, to while away a sleepless night, to relax when I’m tired, to cheer myself up when I’m ill, and really just because I want to read them again. See Elizabeth Peters in Mary’s Library.
A whacky sense of humour and the feisty heroines were hallmarks of her work, but it was the creation of Herr Doktor Anton Z Schmidt that I treasure most. And perhaps the Egyptian cats Bastet and Anubis, into whose persona she wove her own love and knowledge of cats.
All good things come to an end, but knowing that there will be no more of her books to look forward to is a sadness. Another is that I shall never now meet her. But in terms of legacy, what she has left behind is a joy and will continue to be all my life.
Wolfgang died today, at the ripe old age of 27. He leaves me with a hoard of lovely memories and a sense of sorrow for his loss, but an overwhelming gratitude that he was able to live out his life in comfort and safety, contributing seven cubs to the effort to secure his breed, perhaps one day in the wild again.
He was black and hairy, with beautiful gold markings, and tiny intelligent eyes. Wolfie was the male Andean bear at Durrell, known to many as Jersey zoo. He had lived there for most of his life with his female companion Barbara, and I visited them both regularly for many years.
My first sight as I arrived at Durrell was usually of the bears. Wolfie regularly waded in the moat of his enclosure, half swimming, half walking in the deep water, up and down in the stretch below the waterfall. Barbara stood on the nice safe bank, watching him anxiously, clearly accustomed to this irritating male behaviour, but not happy about it.
Fish were once introduced to the moat, with bamboo stems to shelter in. But Wolfie was up to that. The enrichment idea proved very enriching indeed. He waited beside the bamboo for the fish to emerge and wolfed (sorry!) them down.
Durrell is keen on enrichment and occupation for their creatures, and staff come up with novel ideas. I won't quickly forget the time I found the bears flicking earnestly through copies of Yellow Pages. On closer inspection I could see there was honey smeared on them.
Their indoor enclosure has two large metal nests on stands, the higher reached by tree trunks. Fresh bedding is provided every day, and Barbara neatly makes up her own bed. Wolfie often preferred hers to his, and I frequently saw him laying in the lower nest watching her fuss and fidget until she had her bed just how she wanted. Then up he'd get, meandering over the trunks to get into her nice tidy nest. Barbara, preferring to sleep alone, would climb out and descend to the lower nest to start the whole performance over again.
In later years they had their afternoon nap on the floor, often right up against the glass screen where I sat on the far side. They were often cuddled right up together, each resting a paw on the other.
Barbara often found his constant presence irritating, especially when she had hormonal imbalances and he pestered her continually. On one occasion I saw the keeper separate them by putting her in the inner den and closing the metal door almost totally. Neither bear was happy about this, and Wolfie wasn't going to put up with it. He knew how the door opened, but hadn't the strength to push the electrically operated panel back. So he wriggled and squeezed and forced his large body through what must have been no more than a three-inch gap. Barbara stood silently on the far side, waiting for him. I wasn't there to see the keeper's face when he discovered Wolfie's Houdini act.
I wonder how she's faring now. I haven't been able to leave Tirn, my elderly collie, for a couple of years to visit Jersey, and I can't go to see Barbara now. But at least I know that Durrell will look after her. And I'll picture the scene I never actually saw – the bears opening the giant Christmas crackers that were made for them every year. And I have all the happy memories of the time she and Wolfie had together, and of the days I was able to spend watching them.
In fact, Barbara only lived a few weeks longer than Wolfgang. She was soon with him in death as she had been in life.
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