Damian Aspinall is completely wacky in a wonderful way and I suspect its in the genes. At about the age of four his father, an inveterate gambler, won a huge sum at the races, so bought Howletts zoo in Kent in the UK. And so young Damian was immersed deeper into an existence filled with wild animals. Even before the zoo, says Aspinall, “we lived in Eaton Square with a leopard, a Himalayan bear and a capuchin monkey. My father used to walk the leopard at 3am so no one saw him. We moved when he realised that there were just too many animals to fit into the flat.”
At the beginning, the zoo was private and animals wandered everywhere. “I would wake up in the morning next to a chimp. I would eat my breakfast with the gorillas and then watch the bear and the tiger play on the lawn.”
With no help from his father, he went out and made his own way in the world, then using his own money from his successful real-estate business he bought Howletts Zoo back.
Well, he seems just like his father – as stubborn, as determined, as wacky as the man who had tigers wandering loose in his grounds. “But my father wasn’t crazy,” says Aspinall. “He was a conservationist. Everyone thought he was mad to have animals wandering round, but he wanted them to be happy.”
One childhood involves him climbing a tree, as six-year-olds do, and getting stuck. His father, ‘being my father’, reacted in a rather peculiar way.
‘He just walked off, saying something like, “Oh, Damian, you’ll figure it out“. ‘That’s what he was like. Strict. Harsh. He thought things like that would toughen me up. Anyway, I remember crying my eyes out, for what seemed like ages. Eventually, one of our female gorillas climbed up and carried me down in her arms. She spent the rest of the day comforting me. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.’
Today we are focusing on a Gorilla called Kwibi. Aspinall had raised Kwibi from infancy at his zoo in the south of England, and then at the age of five released her back into the wild. Five years later he went back with a camera crew to visit the now 10-year-old male that had been living in the wild in a jungle preserve in Gabon. There was no guarantee Kwibi would remember Aspinall or, if he did, welcome him into his territory.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure. You never know. He is a wild animal now,” Aspinall said. “But deep inside you believe that things will be OK.”
It turned out to be very moving, “It was one of the most amazing, and moving, moments of my life,” he reveals. “Kwibi’s reintroduction to the wild had been so successful that the last time he’d had contact with a human being, a hunter, he had become very aggressive. But when he saw me, he recognised me. He greeted me like a long-lost brother. Eventually, he introduced me to his wife and children. It was so touching.”
Below is video of that encounter. Its well worth watching and it truly is very touching and emotional to see the bond between Damian and Kwibi. We are all part of the same family and have a common ancestor.