A devoted following? Well it's only natural

FOR the past six years Chris Packham has been bombarded by letters from a Scottish lady berating him for having had the audacity to claim on TV that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist.

He laughs as he describes the ongoing correspondence, which forms part of the odd collection of "fan mail" he receives from the public.

Most people know him from his big break in the 1980s on the hit children’s TV show, The Really Wild Show, which he co-presented with infectious enthusiasm alongside Michaela Strachan and Terry Nutkins.

But Packham is also an acclaimed naturalist, wildlife photographer, documentary presenter and established author whose work takes him around the world.

Last night he was at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, giving a slideshow on his work as part of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s 40th anniversary celebrations.

Speaking ahead of the event, he confides that recently even God has apparently found time to drop him a line: "When you get a letter from ‘God’ telling you to do something it’s an interesting start to the week," he muses.

"The lady who had written it [the letter] clearly believes she is God. It was harmless enough - she was writing about being nice to people."

While his area of expertise is animals, Packham has his own theory on human behaviour: "I think because natural history really focuses interest [on the subject] it tends to attract fanatical people.

"Some are weirdos, and while they can be hilarious I know you should not mock the afflicted, and in a way it is quite sad.

"Most [of the letters he receives] get answers, though, although I haven’t opened the last few from the lady in Scotland. Her letters were quite forceful."

Packham’s home town of Southampton sounds an unlikely inspiration for a lifetime’s fascination with wildlife, but from an early age he was hooked.

While his sister was content with a pet hamster or rabbit, Packham wasted no time in turning his family’s home into a zoo.

"My parents were very tolerant. They allowed me to turn the house into a complete menagerie. Before I could even talk my parents saw I was fascinated by things like ladybirds.

"When I was eight it was primarily reptiles, snakes and lizards, and then I moved on to mammals - foxes and badgers - and birds of prey."

The creatures he gave a home to were frequently abandoned or hurt, brought to the Packham home by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the English equivalent of the SSPCA) whose officers allowed the young wildlife enthusiast to try to nurture numerous injured birds and beasts back to health.

His father, a marine engineer, put up shelves in his son’s bedroom to accommodate his reptile collection, as well as turning the modest garden into a caged animal enclosure.

While Packham’s obsession did nothing for his street cred at school, on one notable occasion he did achieve a certain amount of kudos, thanks to a fox that escaped from its enclosure.

"The foxes became quite tame and one was forever escaping. Once it escaped at lunchtime on school sports day. I was competing in the afternoon and as I was running the 100 metres, or whatever, I saw the bloody thing sitting watching everyone going round.

"People had been trying to catch it because they knew it was mine, but I knew that the only sure-fire way of catching it was to get a King Cone ice cream - it loved them, it would go mad even for the wrapper.

"So I confidently strode up to this fox, in front of the whole school and calmly took out a cone. It was a cool moment!"

SHARING your home with wild animals was also hazardous, however. The schoolboy Packham was gung-ho about snake bites, despite several spells in hospital including one where he was in a "pretty serious condition".

"I got bitten all the time. In the end I developed an allergy to the anti-venom, which happens, and I was given it [by mistake]. It must have been pretty distressing for my mum but I wasn’t that bothered at the time. I’m a lot more careful now."

After school, Packham did a zoology degree at Southampton University, which inspired him to take up wildlife photography - the move which led to his successful career.

"I was not into photography at all as a kid. But at university I was really disappointed by the standard of wildlife photography in textbooks. It became a personal crusade to raise standards."

His move into TV presenting was equally haphazard - he was working as an assistant cameraman in the BBC’s natural history department when he was asked if he fancied working on a TV programme for youngsters about wildlife.

While he had at first fondly imagined himself pursuing a career as an "ivory tower-ensconced academic" he soon realised that funding for that was in very short supply, so he agreed to change tack.

And he claims that the much-feared combination of children and animals did not put him off. "I’ve always had quite a devil-may-care attitude, I was not at all worried. I was used to animals and I found that I got on well with the kids. The skill of a naturalist is to look at things for what they are, which is what kids do."

The Bafta award-winning programme was regarded as groundbreaking in its time, with producers risking bringing dangerous animals like crocodiles into studios filled with children.

But according to Packham the most fearsome animal of all was actually the humble rabbit.

"We decided to bring in 50 rabbits, handing one to each child as they came in. But the male rabbits hadn’t been separated and their natural instinct was to fight one another.

"Soon they were biting the children and scratching them. It was carnage!"

Now 43, Packham lives with his partner, Joanne, 29, a baby-hearing screener, and her daughter Megan, nine.

Although he enjoys TV presenting - he has fronted or taken part in numerous documentaries including X-Creatures and Watch Out and is currently working on several more BBC documentaries - his main love remains photography.

His work behind and in front of the camera has taken him around the world, bringing him into close contact with all manner of beasts including tigers and sharks.

But his most frightening encounters have a tendency to involve people, not animals.

"I have been in hairy situations - I’ve been in with sharks, tigers, etc - but I think the most hairy run-ins have been with people.

"I nearly got stabbed in Nepal by some lunatic with a knife in the street. In Mexico I was attacked by men with guns."

The experiences perhaps explain his contrasting view of animals and humans.

"As a child I remember thinking that we humans are physically flawed. I grew up to realise that we are philosophically and politically flawed as well. Animals are perfect."

That said, there is one tribe of people whom he believes are the perfect human beings.

Called the Orang Kubu, they live in Sumatra where Packham encountered them in 1998.

"I think they are homo sapiens in their perfect form. They are in total harmony with their environment, they are perfectly evolved."

• Other events celebrating the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s 40th anniversary across Scotland include a talk by Professor David Bellamy, entitled the Natural History of Malt Whisky, at the Dundee Science Centre, Dundee, tonight at 7pm. On November 30, Gordon Buchanan will talk about making wildlife documentaries and Professor Aubrey Manning will speak about Life on Earth in Glasgow, with the same speakers appearing in Stirling on December 1.

Tickets are priced 7.50, or 5 for SWT members. For more information and tickets, call 0131-312 7765.

Back to the top of the page