Meet: John Denerley, the Deaf David Attenborough!

Posted on July 5, 2013

The rave reviews of Signworld visitors who visited Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park last month made Limping Chicken hungry to know more about the Park’s Deaf director, John Denerley. This seemed a bit risky, as young chicks form the staple diet of many of the carnivorous animals in the Park – they consume over 200 every day! But we thought it was worth braving a trip into the ‘lion’s den’, and managed to limp home with this fascinating interview with the man many are calling ‘the Deaf David Attenborough’!

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LC: Have you always been an animal lover?

JD: Yes, since I was in my pram. When I was about 16 months old, my parents took me to the zoo. They noticed I was really interested, and they kept taking me back.

As soon as I could walk, I was all over the place, signing to my Deaf Mum and Dad about the giraffes, elephants and other animals. My Mum felt then I could grow up to be a great animal lover, and I’ve had a strong passion for animals ever since.

LC: What’s your earliest memory of a particular animal?

JD: My Mum and Dad had tried for a long time to have a baby before I was born, and they weren’t sure if they could have any more (although later they had a daughter and a son, my Deaf sister Rosemary and Deaf brother Francis). So they bought me a puppy for company – a Yorkshire Terrier, whom I christened Terry!

We had a beautiful relationship till Terry finally died at the age of 16. I was heartbroken – I wept floods of tears. But it was a brilliant way to start getting to understand animals.

LC: What other things influenced you?

JD: I used to love watching natural history programmes, like ‘Survival’ on ITV and David Attenborough’s series ‘Life on Earth’. There were no subtitles at that time, but they really fired my imagination, and I hoped that one day I’d be able to work with animals. I wanted to be like David Attenborough, travelling all over the world – he was my role model!

LC: And did you find it easy to do that?

JD: No! I told my schoolteacher I wanted to work as a vet. But the school said, “Oh no, you couldn’t do that – you’re deaf! It’s too hard – you have to study for 5 years. Best to work in a bank or something like that.” And of course, there was no access to university courses back then. So I started work in a bank. But animals were still my dream.

One day I went to Chester Zoo (I was born in Mobberley, Cheshire) and got involved as a volunteer. That really opened up my eyes to the world of animals – real animals, like cheetahs, tigers and orang-utans.

JD - A Peacock_ Me_ LC: How long did it take you to get to where you wanted?

JD: I was bored working in the bank, so I trained as a social worker. I had to give up my flat and go back to living with my parents to do it, but I qualified and for eight years I was a social worker in Warwickshire, and Newcastle. I used to apply for jobs in zoos. But they always said I didn’t have the experience – they talked about the health and safety risks and other barriers.

But I kept feeding my passion – I travelled all over the world to visit zoos and wildlife parks in Europe, North America, Africa and Australia. My hobby’s photography and I used to take photographs and keep these in a diary.

Then I became team manager of a sensory impairment team in Stoke. My wife Kathryn and I managed to find a house with a bit of land attached to it, and we turned that into a sanctuary for wildlife – small British animals that were ill or suffering, had been injured in road accidents, or stuff like that.

I was working full-time and looking after the animals at weekends and in the evenings. But I really enjoyed it and again, I felt drawn into that world. Social work can be stressful, but animals always give me pleasure, put a smile on my face – they’re not like people, always miserable and moaning!

LC: How did you find this place in Galloway?

JD: Kathryn and I came for a holiday in Scotland and visited it – at that time it was more a kind of farm centre, where people could bring their kids to see cows, sheep and goats, and touch them, and so on. And we thought this would be the place for us, it’s perfect.

Then two years later, I saw that it was for sale, in a newspaper. I’d have to give up my job, my house and everything – and I had to think of the children (we have three hearing sons). But we decided to take the risk. Give up everything and move to a new life here in south-west Scotland. Because this had the potential to make my dream come true.

LC: That was ten years ago – how is the dream shaping up?

JD: Yes, a decade on, I feel we’re getting there. We’ve turned it into a real wildlife park, with over 60 species and nearly 150 animals from all over the world, from my favourite, the South American maned wolf, to wallabies and emus from Australia.

We also have a strong commitment to protecting and preserving native British wildlife. Like the Scottish wildcat – there are only about forty pureblood wildcats left in the wild. They’re breeding well here and our plan is to start releasing some into the wild, after we rehabilitate them in how to survive.

We’ve also got a successful breeding programme with the ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar, whose numbers are dwindling as well.

John D with ring-tailed lemursLC: What do you think is your biggest achievement so far?

JD: Probably our successful breeding programme with the red panda, an endangered species from India, Nepal and China. There’s a sad story attached to that, though. In February 2008, a storm blew down a tree and a mother and daughter escaped from their enclosure.

A farmer spotted the mother a couple of months later and we managed to recapture her. But the daughter couldn’t be found. Then, in October 2009, some tourists found her badly injured by the roadside and she died at the vet’s just a few minutes before I got there. I was heartbroken – I’d known her since birth, and to see her smashed and killed by a car was terrible.

But the positive thing was, she’d managed to survive in the wild for twenty months, so it showed that the environment we provide had given her the skills she needed. Since then we’ve bred two more red pandas and given them to zoos in France and Holland, as part of the European Endangered species Programme (EEP).

LC: Do you see the Park as a special place for Deaf people?

JD: We welcome anybody here, as long as they have a love for and interest in animals. In fact, our focus is really the happiness of the animals rather than the visitors – they’re our number one priority.

But of course, as a BSL user from a Deaf family, and with my Deaf wife, we do want it to be especially welcoming for Deaf visitors. It’s a unique place for them to come, in that it’s a sign language environment as well as a home for wildlife. I love having Deaf groups here and giving them the kind of access they wouldn’t get anywhere else.

I’m hoping to set up an educational centre in the Park, so children and students, including Deaf children from mainstream schools and colleges, can come and learn about the importance of conservation and the environment.

Other Deaf people have thrown themselves into supporting us as well. We couldn’t have survived without a lot of contributions and help from Deaf volunteers to help us repair damage after last winter’s heavy snowfalls, for example. So I want to give something back to the Deaf community in return for the marvellous support they’ve given us. That’s my dream as well.

Find out more about Galloway Conservation Park at:

Interview by Bob Duncan.

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