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The Man who Ate the Zoo


The Rev. William Buckland, father of the subject of this highly entertaining book by environmental journalist Richard Girling (who recently gave us The Hunt for the Golden Mole), would also fit the description in its title (though perhaps he is less ‘forgotten’ today). Son Frank was more than a chip off the old bonkers Buckland block – a childlike man who revered his great father and sought all his life to emulate him – including his zoophagous habits. 

Although solemn scientists regarded him as a gadfly, he became, if anything, more famous than dad: a sort of Victorian cross between David Bellamy and Brian Blessed who, as well as entertaining audiences and readers with his boundless enthusiasm for natural history, rose from being a military medic to Inspector of Her Majesty’s Fisheries (in which post he was succeeded by none other than Thomas Huxley). 

Frank was a barrel of a boy who got larger as he aged but never really grew up.  Even as a man, he was likely to produce slow-worms from his pockets or wade into icy waters to see what it really felt like to be a salmon, or defend his views with the incontrovertible but specious logic of a 10 year-old. (He approved of poor children not wearing shoes, explaining that shoe leather gets thinner as you wear it. Human leather gets thicker. QED.)

So why ‘forgotten’ today? Frank made two career ‘mistakes’. First, he maintained the creationist views of his father, long after 1859. As a result, his popular books dated quickly and condemned him a stuckist. Second, he committed the unforgiveable sin of having fun, and being popular. Today he poses the biographer a difficult and unusual problem, namely the sheer volume of his writings, much of which were either wholly or semi-autobiographical.

He also hoarded personal papers, many of which are preserved. Add to this the fact that innumerable anecdotes from his short, packed and highly colourful career have been retailed by many other authors, and we have un véritable embarras de richesse.

Girling skilfully marshals this material into a coherent timeline that manages to recount not only Frank’s life but the story of his discovery of it, while encompassing the anecdotes in a way that doesn’t fall into the other trap - for Frank’s misadventurous life does indeed read like something out of the Beano, or Richmal Crompton.

In passing, Girling even manages to throw light on the father. Did you know, for example, that Buckland père’s occiput and cervical vertebrae were donated to, and still survive under glass at, the Royal College of Surgeons? Neither did I.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

THE MAN WHO ATE THE ZOO – FRANK BUCKLAND FORGOTTEN HERO OF NATURAL HISTORY by RICHARD GIRLING 2016 Published by: Chatto & Windus ISBN: 9781784740405; 392pp, hbk.  List Price: £17.00