My first reaction on seeing the YouTube video du jour—featuring a gorgeous, fair-haired baby playing around with a group of gorillas—was probably much the same as anyone else’s: a gasp of horror and the onset of an internal dialogue questioning the sanity of the parents.
It’s not often I agree with Fox News (which headlined the clip "CHILD ABUSE?") but, frankly, how could this little girl’s parents be so irresponsible? Sure, it looks cute, the baby and the hairy beast going down the slide together, rolling in the woodchip, but everyone knows how dangerous gorillas are, don’t they? I mean, according to a mate of mine who once went to Rwanda, gorillas kill their adversaries by ripping off their arms and leaving them to bleed to death. When the gorilla walked the kid, holding her by her little armies, I could barely watch.
Hadn’t these parents seen King Kong?
Then I saw the name of the fair-haired infant stuntwoman with the co-starring role—Tansy Aspinall—and the plot thickened like bread sauce at an English Sunday lunch.
For there is no name in the United Kingdom more famously associated with gorillas and other big African animals than Aspinall.
John Aspinall, the legendary London casino operator, established Howletts Animal Park in Kent, England, in 1957 as a private collection where animals were housed humanely on vast tracts of land, and it became famous for breeding elephants and gorillas.
Since 2000, when John died, his son, Damian, has been running the park and extended its ambitions; the Aspinall Foundation now breeds more animals than ever and returns dozens of endangered and threatened species to the wild each year.
When I spoke to Damian, he was unfailingly polite but completely unapologetic about releasing the video or putting his daughter in the pen. (The film, it should be noted, was recorded more than 20 years ago— Tansy is now an unscathed 23-year-old.)
It is, as he told The Daily Beast, primarily intended as a fundraising tool and also to dispel what he says are myths about gorillas being dangerous, aggressive animals.
“I had forgotten completely about the video and a friend of mine mentioned it and we dug it out and we had a look at it and we thought it was so cute. And today, with YouTube and things, we thought it is a good opportunity to raise awareness for gorillas and maybe even use it for some fundraising for gorillas,” says Aspinall.
Was he expecting it to be as controversial as it has proved to be?
“Yes. I think in life to get noticed, you have to be controversial. So, the fact that it was controversial made it more appealing to me.”
But did he expect the harshness of the criticism from the like of Fox News? Did he think he would be labeled a bad parent?
“People who are ignorant of the facts, or ignorant of the natural behavior of gorillas, would come to that conclusion. But they know nothing about gorillas, and nothing about gorilla behavior— so it is an ill-educated conclusion and obviously not an opinion I take seriously. These people don’t understand the nature of gorillas, they don’t understand the nature of our gorillas and the relationship we have with them.”
So, is it a myth that gorillas are dangerous?
“Our ethos is that if you treat animals with love and respect you will get that love and respect back, no different than you would with any human. But, just like with humans, you have to be wary of the 10 percent who are downright mean and the 10 percent that are untrustworthy. Once you know that about life, you surround yourself with kind-natured people, and it is the same with animals.
“Anyone can build a relationship with any wild animal, if you are willing to put the love and the nurture into that animal. It’s just like a friendship. There is no difference whether it is a gorilla or a rhino— the same rule applies.
“When my father started looking after animals, all animals in captivity were kept in pairs. He thought that wasn’t right, he thought if you are going to keep animals, you have to keep them in their family groups and you have to look after them properly, give them a proper diet and proper enclosures. His role in conservation in captivity for wild animals has been pivotal, because he did change the way animals were kept in captivity.
“He started breeding animals and looking after animals properly, and was so successful that other collections around the world have followed. I have taken it a step forward. I think zoos are an outdated concept and they are just a reminder to us— to mankind—what a failure we have been as a species, that we have to keep these animals in cages, under the pretext of conservation.
“Zoos have to ask themselves honestly, how much conservation are they doing? And I asked myself that questions and I said, ‘We have got to breed animals in large numbers and then we have got to take them home.’
“We have already released 50 gorillas back into the wild, we have sent two rhino back to Tanzania this year, we have sent 11 monkeys back to Indonesia. And we are going to send another 11 gorillas back soon. We have bred 130 gorillas, that is the world record; we have bred 34 black rhino, world record; 18 elephants, European record.”
Does he still go in with the gorillas himself?
“Yes, and what you see in that video happens in reverse. When I go in with the gorillas, which I do every week, the silverback and his family— they accept me, just like they accept my daughter, and they come and put their offspring in my lap. ‘Here, uncle, can you take the little one? She is driving me absolutely bloody barmy, I am going off for a cup of tea.’ And she goes off, you know, for a kiwi fruit and a mango. And I stay with the kids.
“They honor me with their trust— how can I not honor them with my trust in return?”
How long would he spend in the enclosure on a typical visit?
“Probably an hour every week, you can see it on YouTube, you can see me in with the silverback. You will see the kids come up and play with me and you know, they give me their trust, so it is perfectly natural for me to give my trust back. It is hard for people to understand that. It is an unusual situation.”
The Aspinall ethos means that keepers at the foundation's two parks in Kent spend a lot of time in unusually close contact with the animals in their care. There have been five deaths and several injuries over the years. But when I raise this as a cause for concern when it came to his daughter, Aspinall says:
“With the gorillas—no. I have never had an incident with them. I don’t think there has ever been somebody killed by a gorilla. I might be wrong—but I don’t think there is. I have never heard of it.”
So, why do they have a reputation for being so fearsome?
“Films like King Kong don’t help, but anyone who is remotely educated in anything about gorillas, knows that they are not fearsome. They are only fearsome to people how have absolutely no education on wild animals and they would just think all wild animals are dangerous. But anyone who knows anything about them, knows that actually gorillas are the most gentle of animals."
Some commentators have suggested that the outrage which greeted the video actually speaks more about how our ideas of what makes for "appropriate" parenting has changed in 20 years.
Aspinall agrees: “The culture of the government busy-bodying in parents' lives is disgusting. I am completely against this whole idea of the state dictating how we bring up our children and what is right or what is wrong, and the state interfering too much in our lives.
“The ridiculous thing is that Tansy is actually in the safest place in that film. I would rather leave a child with those gorillas than I would with the average person in the street.
“I am being serious. I mean it. Pedophiles living next door to you, God knows what, muggers.
“She would never come to any harm in the arms of a gorilla. No way.”The Aspinall Foundation urgently needs help with the enormous cost of sending gorillas back to the wild. You can donate by visiting aspinallfoundation.org/backtothewild where you can also follow the gorillas’ incredible journeys to freedom.
In the U.K., donations of £3 can be made by texting BACK to 70300. Always get the bill payer’s permission. Standard message rates apply.