John Ellis (1959-2012)

Any attempt to classify John Ellis would be a taxonomic enigma – but I think the closest we might come to a parallel taxon would be that of a shoebill stork – big, bold, beautiful (in the eye of the beholder), something every aviculturist wants and evolutionarily distinct! It is also somewhat apt that it just happened to be one of John’s favourite birds.

John had a passion for birds, bird watching, and aviculture and almost anything avian that perhaps only rivals Delacour and Sawyer.  It is not unreasonable to mention John’s name in amongst some of these avian greats as John Ellis was certainly one of the best modern bird curators and aviculturists of our generation.

John’s legacy is immense. He developed some of the very best avian experiences in zoos and Penguin Beach at London Zoo encapsulates his vision of combining spectacular displays of birds underpinned by solid mission objectives and advanced welfare.  John’s brilliance with animal training and presentational ability ensured that his audiences left any of his animal demonstrations with an inspired and genuinely increased appreciation of animals and nature.  John was a committed conservationist and his most recent work with breeding and caring for corncrakes and vultures was an integral part to the success of these collaborative projects. Colleagues on these projects from UK to Nepal have expressed their greatest admiration and respect for his knowledge and skills.

Perhaps one of John’s greatest attributes was his ability to inspire, teach, and enthuse others. He had a willingness to share his vast knowledge of birds. Many of us in the profession today have truly valued that mentoring and support that John provided.  His teams and colleagues at ZSL are indebted to him, for championing those birds.

John’s career has spanned some 37 years (he started young!) beginning as a bird keeper at Chester Zoo in 1975 where he primed his talent for hand rearing and incubation. The relief duties on primates and rhinos were enough to send him running back to the Birdhouse though.  In April 1979 John moved to Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust which gave him the chance to become involved in many of the breeding projects for highly endangered species. From Jersey, John moved around a bit including a period at Dr Henry Quinque’s collection in Paris and the wonderful opportunity to work with kagu and where John found a lifelong love of hummingbirds. One of John’s ambitions was to establish a self-sustaining population of hummingbirds within EAZA zoos.  After Paris, John moved to Kelling Park Aviairies in Norfolk then in 1985 onto Ocean World Rhyl as curator of this newly built zoo. Here John really got to work with two of his other passions, horticulture and sealions. After a dalliance with the commercial pet world John returned in 1994 to Chessington World of Adventures as Senior keeper. This is where John really honed his art of presentations producing one the best sealion demonstrations in zoos.

In December 2000, John became Curator of Birds at ZSL. He was immensely proud to be following in the footsteps of some previous avian experts and John’s successors will say the same. Under John’s leadership the collection has matured well becoming a real centre of excellence for toucans and the recent breeding of sunbirds was of great pride to John.  In 2006, John was promoted to Senior Curator in recognition of his knowledge and achievements and his portfolio increased to include the curation of horticulture for ZSL. This just reflected another expert side to John and his ability to blend aviculture and horticulture was remarkable.

John took on many other roles within his career – such as studbook keeper for toco toucans and various TAG chairs, he was an enthusiastic EAZA and BIAZA colleague. He was Chair of the ABWAK for a period in the late 1990s and for a long time was a committed supporter and member of the Avicultural Society.

To all of us who knew John, who worked with him or who just shared a few glorious moments of laughter with him – we shall miss him deeply.  Our heartfelt thoughts go out to his wonderful family, his brilliant boys and his devoted husband John….

We have lost a true giant of the bird world way too soon…John enjoy the G&Ts with Raymond!

There will be a celebration for John’s life at Penguin Beach in London Zoo in a few weeks’ time. John’s family have set up a charity page to donate in memory of John to one of his favourite projects – The Asian Vulture Recovery Project in Nepal.

David Field,
Director of ZSL (the Zoological Society of London)