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Zoo Owner Hates Zoos

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Zoo Owner Hates Zoos

Post  whitestarling on Sat Jun 16, 2012 10:30 pm

MAIL ONLINE Jun 16 2012
Why I'm letting the gorillas I love go free: Son of legendary gambler John Aspinall reveals he's releasing the animals from his family zoo back to the wild

PUBLISHED: 01:42, 16 June 2012 | UPDATED: 13:49, 16 June 2012

Damian Aspinall was still a babe in arms when his late father, the colourful zookeeper and society gambling club host Johnny, first left him in the care of the family who live next-door to their imposing Palladian mansion in the Kent countryside.

That was more than 50 years ago, and when he drops in to see them now, as he still does two or three times a week, ‘I feel as though I’m among my own cousins, aunts and uncles,’ he tells me warmly.

There may seem nothing very unusual about this, but accompanying Damian on one of these casual social visits, the extraordinary nature of his lifelong bond becomes movingly — and disconcertingly — apparent.

Approaching his neighbours’ home we are stopped dead in our tracks by a low, primal rumbling noise. ‘Don’t worry. They’re just asking why I’ve brought a stranger with me,’ he smiles, sensing my alarm.

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Part of the family: Damien Aspinall with Kifu, one of his beloved gorillas

Then, as we reach the door, the whole tribe comes bounding up to greet us, and though the head of the house — a huge, brooding chap — invites Damian in with a hairy-armed wave, it is clear from the menacing glint in his eye that uninvited guests aren’t welcome.

It wouldn’t be wise to argue. The neighbours in question, you see, are a group of lowland gorillas and even the smallest infant among them could yank a human arm clean out its socket. Damian is so familiar with them that he enters their paddock with barely a second thought, and the father, a 400lb silverback called Kifu, embraces him with a mighty hug before cheekily slipping a hand into his trouser pocket to pilfer a juicy pea-pod.

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They then ‘converse’ for a few moments via a choreographed sequence of head and body movements before the protective alpha male, in an extremely rare show of trust, beckons his ‘wives’ and ‘children’ to join them for a chat.

The ritual ends with a one-sided wrestling match in which Kifu hurls Damian around the straw like a rag-doll. ‘He’s just being affectionate because he doesn’t want me to go,’ he laughs, checking his spine is still intact. ‘He’s always sad when I leave.’

Evidently so. And soon the 28-year-old gorilla’s sorrow might become permanent. For since taking over the two Kent wildlife parks founded by his father half a century ago, Damian has developed such a deep-seated loathing for zoos, and all they stand for, that he has embarked on a remarkable mission to return as many animals as possible to the wild.

The first phase of this laudable and unprecedentedly grand-scale project will see him release around 40 animals, of various species, during the next few months.

'If I had my way, I’d close down 90  per cent of all zoos tomorrow'

The Noah’s Ark-like operation begins in earnest today when three black rhinos will be loaded into specially-built crates at the Aspinall wildlife park at Port Lympne, winched onto a cargo plane at nearby Manston airport and flown to freedom in the Tanzanian bush.

They will be followed, later in the summer, by a consignment of endangered langur monkeys and a gibbon, which will go home to boost the dwindling population on the Indonesian island of Java.

Then, in January, a family of 11 gorillas led by a silverback named Djala will be freed to roam a vast natural reserve patrolled and managed by the John Aspinall Foundation in Gabon. It will be the first time a male has been reintroduced to the wild together with his females and offspring, and this story in particular brings a lump to the throat.

For 30 years ago, when he was a baby, Djala watched as his parents, brothers and sisters were slaughtered by poachers in the Congo, and he was about to be boiled alive and eaten by villagers when a French uranium prospector witnessed the appalling scene from his helicopter and swooped to his rescue.

A tender bond: Damian with one of the gorillas who live at his wildlife parks

After bartering for the gorilla’s release, the pilot persuaded a friend in Brazzaville to look after him. Then in 1986, when the gorilla was three, he was given to the Aspinall Foundation and has since lived at their 600-acre wildlife park, Howletts.

Perhaps because he was so traumatised by his early experiences, the temperamental Djala is one gorilla who doesn’t accept 52-year-old Damian into his presence. Like all the animals under his charge, however, the conservationist-cum-casino boss (who bought back the family’s gaming interests after his father died in 2000) regards the gorilla as a close friend and will miss him dearly.

Yet Aspinall has become so disgusted by the perceived iniquities of keeping captive animals for the amusement of humans that he will feel uplifted when he says goodbye to Djala and his family.

'You can learn far more from a David Attenborough film than going around a city-centre zoo.'
‘If I had my way, I’d close down 90  per cent of all zoos tomorrow,’ he tells me, as we chat in a study adorned with wonderful old photographs of him and his family cavorting with the menagerie amidst which the eccentric Johnny raised them.

‘They are nothing more than jails. People argue they are educational — well, stuff education! You can learn far more from a David Attenborough film than going around a city-centre zoo.

‘Just walk around any of these city zoos and be appalled! They shouldn’t be allowed to exist.

‘They are a necessary evil, and if we are going to have them, there should be a law that they have programmes to protect the wilderness and re-introduce animals to the wild. Otherwise you just have a collection of animals being kept for the enjoyment of man — and I don’t think animals should be kept for our enjoyment.’

Lifelong bond: Damian Aspinall, pictured here in 1992, has had a close relationship to gorillas for most of his life

He says his sentiments would have been shared by his father, a pioneering zookeeper whose passion and immense knowledge of animals was often forgotten by gossip writers keener to focus on his friendship with Lord Lucan and other well-heeled members of his Mayfair gambling club, The Clermont.

Indeed, Damian tells me zealously, he regards his ‘back to the wild’ project as the realisation of a dream Johnny harboured after rescuing his first animal — a forlorn monkey that he bought, on his wife’s pleading, from Harrods, which then sold all manner of exotic ‘pets’ (he took it home to Eaton Square and named it Dead Loss because he didn’t expect it to survive for more than a few days — but it thrived under his care).

Soon afterwards, Aspinall senior bought a 90-acre plot near Canterbury with his £5,000 winnings on a horse racing bet and turned it into a different type of zoo, where the animals came first and keepers were encouraged to interact closely with them. So closely, in fact, that during a dark period in the Eighties and Nineties five keepers were killed, and Johnny was forced to shoot one of his man-eating Siberian tigers.

'Zoos are a necessary evil, and if we are going to have them, there should be a law that they have programmes to protect the wilderness and re-introduce animals to the wild.'
But he never wavered in the unorthodox beliefs that led him to leave Damian alone with wolves, tigers and other predators from the earliest age and placed him in the arms of a gorilla when he was a baby.

Damian followed this tradition by doing the same with his elder daughters Tansy, now 23, and Clary, 20, but by the time his eight-year-old Freya (whose mother is the TV presenter Donna Air) was born, times had changed, and he was warned off by the police and social services.

‘I mentioned it in an interview and they insisted I give them a reassurance that Freya wouldn’t be put in with a gorilla,’ he says. ‘She is still furious about it. I probably would have done, but she’s such a show-off she would have told all her friends.’

An engaging, youthful-looking man whose floppy blond mane, square jaw and lithe, 6ft 3in frame lend him the air of a lion in languid repose, Damian is at pains to point out that no one has been hurt at the wildlife parks for more than 20 years.

At one with the animals: Mr Aspinall, pictured in 2008 with three gorillas he released in the wild in Gabon

He is far more concerned about the harm being done to captive animals. Smouldering with fury, he says they are invariably housed in expensively designed cages designed to maximise viewing rather than mimic their natural habitat; fed on convenient, cheaply-produced pellets rather than the fresh fruit and vegetation they would eat in the wild; and bred sparingly to keep down costs.

While he regards even his own foundation’s wildlife parks as ‘prisons’, he says, they are at least ‘very nice prisons’ where the inmates are not there simply to be gawped at, but to reproduce in sufficient numbers that they can be returned to their homelands, and where, in the meantime, no expense is spared to improve the quality of their lives.

‘We spend £100,000 a year just on growing fresh herbs for our gorillas, and £10,000 a week on exotic fruits from New Covent Garden — not second-hand fruit that some supermarket is about to throw out.

Ladies man: Damian pictured with ex Donna Air but no woman, it seems, has ever been able to usurp the animals who are at the centre of his life

‘It costs more than £9 million a year to run our parks (part of a charitable trust) and another £1.5 million goes on our overseas projects, but to me the money is irrelevant.

‘All I care about is the animals. I don’t regard this as a zoo but a breeding sanctuary, and if we do our job right then one day there will be no zoos or wildlife parks at all.

‘My ultimate goal is to close this place down because it’s a reminder of what a failure we humans are as a species. We arrogantly take from the planet and give nothing back.’

His plan to redress this imbalance by the mass repatriation of animals will incur much more expense, of course. It will cost £200,000 for this year’s flights alone, not to mention £64,000 for the crates and £5,000 in vets’ fees.

Then there is the expense of patrolling the foundation’s reserves in Africa, which span one million acres — half the size of Kent — and employing ‘eco-nannies’ to nurture the gorillas, rhinos and monkeys as they make the transition to independence.

Before they attain it, they must overcome formidable hurdles and danger, for many of these animals were born in captivity and have known no other environment than the benign British countryside.

One gorilla previously freed by the foundation fell from a tree because its climbing skills were insufficiently honed, and should they fail to pick one of 130 wild fruits that are safe to eat, they could be poisoned.

As for the rhinos, their valuable horns will inevitably put them in the sights of poachers — 600 have been slaughtered in the past 18 months — and as they have grown sensitised to humans they might be easier targets.


PLEASE help us send these animals back to the wild. Donations of £3 can be made by texting BACK to 70300.

The Aspinall Foundation will receive 100 per cent of the donation. Always get the bill payer's permission. Standard message rates apply.

To make a larger donation and to follow the animals on their journeys, visit aspinallfoundation.org/backtothewild

Damian readily acknowledges all these risks, but insists they are well worth taking ‘because I know in my heart what we are doing is right’.

In any case, he says, the survival rates among those animals they have previously returned to Africa are remarkably good, with more than 80 per cent of the gorillas still alive and flourishing: an even greater proportion than those born in the wild.

He is equally optimistic about the three rhinos, Grumetti, Zawadi and Monduli, who will be gently sedated this morning and sent to the distant foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It goes without saying Damian will be there to meet his friends when they land, and to help reassure them as these magnificent animals, each weighing a ton, make their first tenuous steps in the land of their forebears.

‘It will be some sight,’ he says. ‘If you’ve ever seen a rhino spend years behind the bars of a pen, and then watched that same animal roaming free, as nature intended, it is really very special.’

Watch a video of Damian's amazing reunion with Kwibi, a gorilla he sent back to the wild:

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2160127/John-Aspinalls-son-Damian-reveals-hes-releasing-animals-family-zoo-wild.html#ixzz1xzekMgMp

If I can make somebody smile, my day has been worthwhile

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Re: Zoo Owner Hates Zoos

Post  littlewid on Sun Jun 17, 2012 4:04 pm

I remember seeing that documentary WS of the Gorillas that had been released back into the wild, if I remember it was done very well and Damien has a great respect for them.
I do worry about the Rhino that are being released though with all the poaching that goes on, especially as we have seen that even with patrols it is so hard to keep these animals safe from poachers but from what I understand about him, he doesn't do things on a whim.
Zoos or no Zoos is always going to be a contravertail subject and I am sure one that not everyone will agree on, all I can say is that animals are released back into the wild after having been a captured animal, it has to be done with such great care and expertise.



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Re: Zoo Owner Hates Zoos

Post  littlewid on Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:45 am

This was in the mail today. Prince William supporting the release of 3 Black Rhino back into the wild.




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