Surrounded by sculptures of pouncing lions and leopards, Damian Aspinall tells a story about having a tiger cub in the bath. “I know how extraordinary it is,” he says, sitting in his London office — a grand space with polished walnut floors and French doors facing a terrace with glimmers of Chelsea rooftops. “I’ve been surrounded by animals my entire life and I can tell you there’s no greater privilege in this world. Animals should have as much right to happiness as we do and co-exist on this planet, which is far more important than we are.”
Starting with a small colony of Javan langur monkeys and silver gibbons recently flown back to their Indonesian homeland, he is preparing to repatriate a whole family of gorillas in one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects ever. “I’m very wary. It’s like sending your children out into the world, knowing the dangers they’ll face. Taking a group of adult gorillas [and] uprooting them from the place they’ve lived all their lives, is incredibly stressful and could go terribly wrong.
“It would be unnecessarily selfish not to do this,” he adds, fixing me with his steely gaze. “Given the choice of sending these animals back to take their chances into the wild rather than sending them to some ghastly zoo somewhere else, I would rather pour acid in my eyes than let that [sending them to a zoo] happen.”
With his sharp cheekbones and immaculately tailored threads, Aspinall can be a fierce presence but when he talks it doesn’t take long to warm to him. And with Aspinall, inevitably, all conversation lead to conservation.
The casino-owning environmentalist (who was once a staple of the international party circuit and dated supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson) runs Howletts and Port Lympne wildlife parks in Kent and The. So far, his charity has returned record numbers of gorillas, elephants, primates and other animals to Africa and Asia.
“When my father first came up with the idea, he was laughed at. Every expert said it was madness and that the gorillas wouldn’t adapt, that they’d die. But we’ve been doing it successfully for years and, interestingly, even though we’ve introduced 60 gorillas back to the wild, no one else has introduced one.”
The son of legendary London gambler and maverick zookeeper John Aspinall, Damian, 53, grew up at Howletts, a 600-acre estate in Kent, where his father’s exotic pets prowled the house and gardens. “I had an extraordinarily blessed childhood, going to bed with cheetahs and having breakfast with monkeys,” recalls Damian, who was virtually raised by gorillas and, as a baby, was placed in the arms of a female gorilla (a family ritual he later carried on with his own children, which stirred controversy when he released a video of his daughter Tansy as a toddler rolling around with a full-grown gorilla). “We’ve got old Super 8 films from the 1960s of me tearing around the lawns as a seven-year-old boy with wolves, big cats and bears, and playing with a gang of wolves, tigers and bison around a tree.
“Everyone thought he was crazy to have predators wandering everywhere, but he just wanted them to be happy,” he says of his father, who established Howletts in 1957 as a private collection where animals were housed humanely on immense parcels of land. “In those days, before my dad came along, zoo animals were kept in pairs and in grim conditions. He thought they should stay in their family groups as they live in the wild and be looked after properly, with a proper diet, plenty of stimulation and space to roam. He started all these things everyone now takes for granted because he was an outsider. I hardly saw my father, but he was a huge influence: good and bad. I’ve inherited his fearlessness and ability to think unconventionally.”
The Back To The Wild 2013 campaign is the realisation of a dream his father had after rescuing a sad, scrawny monkey that he bought, on his mother’s insistence, from Harrods. “They had a full-blown row in the middle of the store. Dad thought it was futile and named it ‘Dead Loss’ because he didn’t expect it to survive. Instead, the tiny creature flourished, lived in Eaton Square with us and went on to have 24 offspring and 53 grandchildren. We still have his descendants. From there, Dad got the bug and we ended up with primates, cheetahs, leopards and a Himalayan bear all sharing our London flat.
“He used to sneak around in the dead of night taking the big cats out for walks until one of the cheetahs killed the neighbour’s dog,” he says, laughing and sending his PR into absolute hysterics while spilling the gruesome details. “It was a freezing-cold night and Dad was walking with the cheetah and a dog appeared. The dog sees a cat 100 yards away in the snow and races towards it. When he finally sees the cheetah, he yelped and tried to skid away. The cheetah killed him with one paw. Dad picked up the dog and hid it in the dustbin. A couple of days later there were wanted signs: ‘Have you seen my dog Bitsy?’ That’s when Dad realised he had to find somewhere to put his animals. So we ended up moving to Howletts.”
Since taking over the wildlife parks and foundation after his father’s death in 2000, he’s far exceeded his ambitions. “You have to understand when he died there was no money in the bank and these parks were losing £4 million a year. It wasn’t fantastic, like ‘great I can play with animals every day’. Now we have to find £10 million a year. I can see why the other family members didn’t want to be involved, but I was compelled to do it.”
His property and gambling empire is a means to keep his charity afloat, “doing whatever it takes and whatever it costs”, as well as the expense of patrolling the foundation’s conservancies in Africa, which span about one million acres, and employ 24-hour armed guards to shoot poachers, along with an army of vets, whisperers and naturalists to nurture and teach the gorillas, rhinos and monkeys how to live wild as they make the transition to freedom.
“These animals have a right to go home. All this rubbish about ‘they’ve lost their instincts in the wild’ said by some scientists. What do they know? They always underestimate the intelligence of these animals. Who are we to play God and say they can’t go back? The arrogance of it disgusts me. Why can’t animals exist for themselves? All zoos should be shut and if they do exist, it should only be as rehab centres for orphans and those who can’t survive in the wild. Zoos are vile, barbaric places. It’s like locking children up: it’s deeply unethical. These institutions are entrenched in their way of thinking; it’s down to me to sway public opinion.
“Our ethos is unique, the way we look after animals, the way we consider them. The biggest complaint we get is: ‘I’ve been all round bloody Howletts and not seen any animals’,” he says in his best East End barrow-boy accent. “I know I’m making a difference, what we are doing is setting high standards.
“I’m happiest when I’m with the animals,” Aspinall admits and lives between his home in London and the Kent compound, where he devotes weekends to his furry extended family. “I find peace among them. When I’m with them, the world stops and nothing else matters. You just don’t get that with humans. It probably sounds corny, but it’s just pure love, unadulterated honey and you soak it up.” And with that, he goes off, smiling.
Visit the Aspinall Foundation website for more details, to donate or attend the Ormeley Dinner on Thursday, 6 June 2013, at Bridgewater House, London SE1, in aid of wildlife projects around the world. All money raised will help support The Aspinall Foundation, The Ecology Trust and the Rainforest Fund. Tables of 10 at £30,000 each are still available. Email: email@example.com