I don’t really know what the intelligent conservation community of the UK thinks of Terry Nutkins. I suspect there are quite a few people who dismiss him as little more than a grubby-fingered children’s entertainer; engaging in his own way but hardly a natural-history heavy weight. Furthermore, I can imagine that there are quite a few people who weren’t too enamoured by him keeping a sealion (or was it a seal?) at home in what couldn’t have been much more than a big bath.
But the fact is that Terry, Tezzer, along with Johnny Morris, were the only people on television when I was a nipper talking to children about animals in a way they could understand. We had El Attenborough of course and whereas we knew exactly what he was going on about, his job was to show us the wonder of the natural world which he continues to do, unrivalled, to this day. But Nutkins used to explain stuff and, best of all, he’d jump straight to the most gruesome and enthralling facts; how poisonous it is, how it could kill you, how quickly it could kill you, how long its teeth are and how big it was compared to our dog. This, I assure you, was what we wanted to know, was the reason we tuned in.
And the absolute coolest thing about yer man was the fact that he had a missing finger. Or at least half a missing finger. I can recall getting close up to the TV and pointing it out to my brother; “There!” I would say, putting my own finger against the screen. And my eyes would follow the finger that wasn’t there as Nutkins gesticulated on Animal Magic.
And I distinctly remember, at least I’m sure I remember, him once holding it up to the camera and saying that it was bitten off by a Scottish wildcat. Now that is pure, octane-fuelled, wildlife rock n’ roll! Here was a man that had lived wildlife in its reddest form. I wanted something wild to deny me a digit! To a seven year-old, having your finger bitten off by an animal is perhaps the coolest way to lose an appendage and I held up the back of my hand and bent my middle finger into the palm (just as I’m doing now) to see what I would look like. The answer: very dashing with a rakish whiff of danger.
It turns out I'd created a false memory. It wasn’t a wildcat. It was one of Gavin Maxwell’s otters that took off Tel’s finger. But the excitement is undimmed. I wanted, and still want, to get close enough to wild animals to feel their electricity, look into their eyes, feel their sense of being perfectly adapted to the cold and dark that we, as a species, have decided to remove ourselves from. And maybe, just maybe, I will one day have the chance to lift my sleeve and say “See that scar? Scottish wildcat.”