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The Jersey Zoo -- See and Be Seen
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As we entered, two very large Andian bears were romping on a thick grass lawn in the midst of a lush natural landscape with no evident barriers between them and us. Exotic red-breasted geese waddled comically beside us on the grassy banks of an artificial lake nearby. Rare birds threatened with extinction in their native lands chattered unafraid high in the dense foliage of the trees surrounding us, as small furry creatures similarly endangered flitted branch to branch.

We had come halfway across the world to the English Channel Island of Jersey to visit this place -- and we weren't disappointed. The Jersey Zoo, founded in 1959 on the outskirts of the island's capital of St. Helier by writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell, is quite rightly world-renowned.

There's no zoo like it anywhere. It seeks not merely to entertain and educate humans, but to help birds and animals survive in the face of human actions that threaten their survival.

Many of the zoo's inhabitants live freely on the 31 acres of woodland and gardens that are filled with plants and flowers and shrubs and trees from their natural habitats, some as rare and endangered as the birds and animals themselves. Others live in enclosures so large and full of trees and other greenery you're almost unaware that they're cages.

Some get up close and personal, like the extremely rare Ya-Ya Lemurs from Madagascar who paused to look us over solemnly through big soft intelligent eyes as we passed by the low branches in which they frolicked, gentle, fearless, and seemingly as curious about us as we were about them.

The lemurs' wooded habitat is adjacent to an organic farm that grows most of the zoo animals' food. It generally is as similar as possible to the food they eat in their natural environments and is distributed in such a way as to allow the animals to find it as they would in the wilds.

Nearby, a family of five Western Lowland Gorillas drew its usual large crowd. Two youngsters were romping, playfully biting each other as they rolled on the ground, while the three adults -- one male, two female -- kept close watch. The females sat behind the male in slouched, subservient positions. The male, mate of both females, sat regally straight and stiff, eyeing visitors as closely as he eyed his children and mates.

"There's the boss," I said loudly of the patriarch, and he looked up immediately -- straight at me.

One of the special daily programs for zoo visitors offered us the unique opportunity to pet a rare snake. Durrell had convinced me intellectually, in his highly amusing book about the zoo's early days, "Menagerie Manor," that petting a snake is no different from petting a dog and that snakes are admirable creatures. But emotionally, I just couldn't do it.

We went into the Reptile Breeding Center nevertheless, and a very good thing we did. Highlights include miniscule frogs that look as if they were painted: Bright blue frogs from Surinam, golden frogs from Colombia, brownish red frogs from Peru. All are roughly the size of a fingernail. Their venom is used to tip the darts and arrows of natives hunting in the jungles of Central and South America.

Durrell, who died at 70 in 1995, established much more than a zoo. It is headquarters for the worldwide Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust -- "international breeding centre for some of the world's most endangered species."

It is dedicated to protecting, breeding and returning to the wild or at least to other zoos, the endangered species -- and there are more than 100 -- that live at the zoo. It's as determined to improve the conditions in their native areas that caused them to become endangered and has helped pull several species back from the edge of extinction.

Some of that work is being done by young people who have come to the zoo from throughout the world to study the techniques of breeding and raising rare species in captivity. They are dealing not only with birds and animals already in danger of extinction but also with those likely to be endangered. So far, more than 1,000 students from more than 100 countries have completed residential training there.

Copyright Dick Meister