Island naturalist, educator dies

Photo: Tim Johnson/Vineyard Gazette

Augustus “Gus” Donald Ben David died peacefully at home on July 4, 2024, attended by his loving family. To Vineyarders, he was our foremost educator and advocate for all things wild, but to experts around the world, he was a peer in many fields of wildlife management. It was a status he would achieve not in spite of humble beginnings, but because of them. 

Born on November 22, 1943, in Oak Bluffs to the late Arthur and Stella (Kadziola) Ben David, Gus was raised on what was then a little-known island in a part of town that was still mostly rural. The community was close-knit and working class. Many workers held multiple jobs and yet still found time to harvest the bounty of the Island’s land and waters. It was in this nurturing setting, in a time of freedom and abundance, that Gus’s devotion to the Vineyard’s people and wildlife was forged. To Gus, wildlife and people were not separate entities, but all part of the same community. 

Raised on a small family farm on Vineyard Avenue, Gus learned a work ethic early on. Childhood tasks included tending to livestock; what free time he had was often spent in search of wildlife. By the age of 9, he had acquired his first Red-tailed hawk, which began a lifelong passion for falconry. By the age of 12, he had his first cow and by his early teens, he and his uncle had built an egg business. After graduating from high school, Gus was the first in his family to attend college, the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, where he majored in poultry science. He was drafted into the Army in 1964, achieving the rank of Sergeant. At Fort Bragg, he explored the birds and swamplands of North Carolina and kept snakes in the barracks. During college and military years, Gus had one driving ambition, to return to the Island he loved. When he returned from the service, he and his uncle, for whom he was named, built Gus N’ Gus Wild Animal Farm on Vineyard Ave. There he kept everything from eagles to giant snakes, porcupines and many other wild animals. Self-taught, he soon gained notoriety as the Island’s leading naturalist and in 1969 was recruited to become the first Director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, a post he held until 2005. Among many wildlife projects, perhaps his most enduring was erecting osprey nests with an all-volunteer crew, which began in 1972. Today there are over 150 nest poles across the Island, one of the first places to recover from the era of DDT. 

It was through Felix Neck that Gus rose to prominence and became familiar to the Islands’ most influential residents, both year-round and seasonal. Gus was inducted as a board member to the International Wild Waterfowl Association in the early ‘70s, later joining the board of directors. Through the IWWA he traveled much of Europe and North America and was regarded as an authority among many of the world’s leading aviculturists. He admired and respected all, but he reserved his greatest affection for those individuals, past and living, from old Island families: intertwined by marriage and rooted in their connection to the land. 

Educating people about wildlife with live animals was a constant theme throughout Gus’s life, whether at Felix Neck or through his private enterprises, such as the Vineyard Serpentarium near the Oak Bluffs harbor or, after his retirement, at his World of Reptiles. He loved teaching children and influenced the lives of thousands. He had a special place in his heart for those who had not yet found their way. Many of those who knew him as a mentor went on to leadership roles as diverse as research, medicine, education and, of course, wildlife conservation. Regardless of the path they chose, Gus asked only one thing: to practice kindness to others. 

Gus’s love for wildlife and community was exceeded only by his love of family and close friends. Gus is survived by his wife, Debbie Ben David of Edgartown; stepchildren Beth and Ed Wallace of West Newbury MA, Kristen and Nuno Borges of Exeter, NH, Amanda and Tony DePalma of Groveland, MA; Gus’s brothers Edward and Jules Ben David and his wife Barbara of Oak Bluffs; his former wife Sally Sherwood, and their children Heidi and Joe Medeiros of ME, Phaedra Ben David of Oak Bluffs, Shane and Dina Ben David of Edgartown, and Brant and Jen Ben David of Oak Bluffs; and thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

A scholarship fund will be created in Gus’s name, to which donations may be made in his memory. A memorial service will be held in the fall, at a time and place to be announced.


  1. What a wonderful individual and a gift to have had in our community. I was one of those kids at Felix Neck in the 70s and 80s and he had a profound influence on my love for nature and living things.

  2. I and my wife had the pleasure of knowing Gus and Debbie since the mid 80’s, many wonderful days and evenings having suppers and lunch’s together of lobster, blue crabs, oysters, stuffed clams, island vegetables and the like. There was never a time when we didn’t learn something new from Gus and the times were always great fun! He was such a wonderful educator for young and old alike. Gus was also fortunate to have Debbie for his wife, partner and friend! As a retired LPN she was able to make his “transition” so much easier and less painful because of her loving care.
    He was always there for scaled, furred and feathered friends, 24/7 when people from all over the island called – window strikes, vehicle hits and anything one can imagine. Gus was also involved in erecting many of the osprey poles for nesting (prevent their electrocution deaths on utility poles and associated power outages) which most visitors to the island realize, until their power goes out as it did last week in Oak Bluffs.
    Gus will surely be missed by us and all who ever met him but we still have the memories and the pleasure and honor of knowing him! Debbie, who I call “Mom”, is always in my heart and I will always be there for her through this difficult journey.
    Rest In Peace Gus, will see you on the flip side at some point.
    Love you Man!

  3. Gus Ben David was as fine a person as one can be. His innate connection with animals led him to experience the multitudes of worlds within our one world. My sister Barbara Prada shared this knack with Gus. She worked with him and brought all the children in her life to see Gus’s collection of critters. My kindest regards to his family. He made us all proud to be Islanders.

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