David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest Expeditions: The memoir of a young, madcap film maker

Sir David Attenborough's memoir of some of his earliest expeditions is endlessly charming – but it's the people rather than the animals who are the stars of the show, says Patrick Galbraith.

In the mid 1950s, a young David Attenborough set off across Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay with a large number of cigarettes and reels of 16mm film in search of extraordinary creatures for one of the BBC’s first nature programmes.

The Zoo Quest Expeditions is the story of those voyages. Originally published in 1980 and now re-issued by Two Worlds, it’s a pleasing testament to the enduring power of the written word that his tales convey the beauty of the wild world just as captivatingly as any of his contemporary TV hits.

The Attenborough we know and love today might be a rather grand old man famed for his soothing, wise timbre, but, in these pages, there’s a madcap filmmaker on display. It’s hard not to smile when reading about an escapee pig being chased down a Guyanese river or the capture of a savage caiman with a makeshift lasso.

David Attenborough in the 1950s - from The Zoo Quest Expeditions

However, in many ways, what makes this book such a good read is that so much of its charm lies not in Sir David remembering the animals that he caught, but, rather, his memories of the curious people he met.

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Tiny McTurk, a pioneering cattle rancher who takes the young naturalist off to search for Jabiru storks, is one such. In response to a rodent infestation in his ramshackle house, Tiny innovatively captures a rat-devouring boa constrictor and installs it, to great effect, in his hallway.

There’s a lot here, too, for the armchair anthropologist, as Sir David recalls encounters with a variety of tribes, such as the group of Amerindians with whom he spends an evening as they call ‘spirits down from the sky’ to make their ailing chief well again.

Throughout The Zoo Quest Expeditions, Sir David conveys tremendous respect for all that he encounters, human and animal alike. But unlike so many natural-history books of late, this is not a worthy deluge of gloomy decrees about the environmental irresponsibility of Man. It’s a memoir of tremendous positivity, conjuring up the fascinating ability of Nature to unite and inspire us.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions by David Attenborough (Two Roads, £25)