Damian Aspinall was still a babe in arms when his father, the colourful zoo-keeper and society gambling club host Johnny, first left him in the care of the family who lived 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.
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.
Then, as we reach the door, the whole tribe come bounding up to greet us, and though the head of the house – a huge, brooding chap – invites Damian in, it’s 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.
Damian is so familiar with them that he enters their paddock with barely a second thought, and the father, a silverback called Kifu, embraces him with a mighty hug.
They then “converse” for a few moments via a choreographed sequence of head and body movements before the alpha male, in a rare show of trust, beckons his “wives” and “children” to join them.
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 says with a laugh.
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 that he has embarked on a remarkable mission to return as many animals as possible to the wild.
The first phase of this project will see him release around 40 animals, of various species, during the next few months.
The Noah’s Ark-like operation began last week when three black rhinos were flown to freedom in the Tanzanian bush.
They will be followed later by a consignment of endangered langur monkeys and a gibbon, which will go home to 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 is particularly moving.
For 30 years ago, when he was a baby, Djala’s family 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 scene from his helicopter and swooped to his rescue.
The pilot persuaded a friend in Brazzaville to look after him.
Then in 1986, when Djala was three, he was given to the Aspinall Foundation’s 240 hectare wildlife park, Howletts.
But Damian says he will feel uplifted when he says goodbye to Djala and his family.
“If I had my way, I’d close down 90 percent of all zoos. They are nothing more than jails.”
He says his sentiments would have been shared by his father, a pioneering zookeeper whose passion for animals was often forgotten by gossip writers keener to focus on his friendship with Lord Lucan and his gambling.
Indeed, Damian 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.
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.
Soon afterwards, Johnny bought a large plot near Canterbury with his 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 that in the 1980s and ’90s five keepers were killed.
But he never wavered in the unorthodox beliefs that led him to leave Damian alone with animals from the earliest age and placed him in the arms of a gorilla when he was a baby.
Today, Damian’s major concern is the harm being done to captive animals.
Smouldering with fury, he says they are invariably housed in cages designed to maximise viewing rather than mimic their natural habitat and fed cheaply produced pellets instead of the fresh fruit and vegetation they would eat in the wild.
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 stared at, but to reproduce in sufficient numbers so that they can be returned to their homelands.
“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 one day there will be no zoos or wildlife parks.”
His plan to redress this imbalance by the mass repatriation of animals will incur considerable expense. Then there is the expense of patrolling the foundation’s reserves in Africa, which span 400 000ha, 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, for many of these animals were born in captivity and have known no other environment.As for the rhinos, their valuable horns will inevitably put them in the sights of poachers, especially as they are used to humans.
Damian acknowledges all these risks, but insists they are worth taking.
In any case, he says, that the survival rates among animals they have previously returned to Africa are remarkably good, with more than 80 percent of the gorillas still alive.
He is just as optimistic about the three rhinos – Grumetti, Zawadi and Monduli – sent to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
What a sight that must have been: three magnificent animals, each weighing a ton, taking their first tenuous steps in the land of their forebears.
“If you’ve ever seen a rhino spend years behind the bars of a pen, then watched that animal roam free, as nature intended, it is really very special.” – Daily Mail