May 25, 2017

He knew he was right!

A tribute to John Victor Aspinall: gambler, casino owner and zookeeper—11 June 1926–26 June 2000.

This article, written on 8th August 2000, was included in the limited edition volume John Aspinall Among His Friends, edited by Robin Birley (Harley Publishing, 2000).

John Aspinall founded Howletts Zoo, near Canterbury in Kent, which continues under the management of his son, Damian.


One of Aspers’s greatest pleasures was to taunt the politically correct mercilessly and with the most mischievous glee. He showed the greatest ingenuity in finding ever more effective ways to infuriate them. Indeed, there is not one of their most sacred dogmas that he did not go out of his way to deride, not one of their strictest taboos that he did not make it a point to violate. To many he was the devil incarnate. Though it can be argued that occasionally he went over the top – I am sure he was usually right. Let me give some examples.

The cult of political correctness is above all the cult of the human isolate who, in the anonymous mass society in which we live, eventually becomes the norm. He alone is sacred—his family, his community, his country, the natural world with the great beasts that inhabit it, and the religion and traditions that hold them all together, have not only been desacralized, but are seen as largely dispensable if not mere relics of our barbaric past.

Inevitably people will eventually react against this aberrant world-view. Already the growing Deep Ecology Movement fully accepts that man is no more important than other animals, but Aspers, as we all know, went further. For him the living world with its great majestic beasts is sacred above all else. Man (at least modern man) is a parasite and the less of him the better. From the ecological point of view he was of course right.

We’ve spent some 99 percent of our tenancy of this planet as hunter-gatherers. When living in the areas in which we developed culturally we did not destroy our environment or threaten the survival of the wild animals that inhabited it. As omnivores and predators we fulfilled the ecological function of applying quantitative and qualitative controls on prey populations. To eliminate man, the hunter-gatherer in his heyday, would have led to an increase in prey populations as well as to a reduction in their viability. On the other hand, to eliminate nitrogen fixing bacteria would bring life, as we know it, to an end. Hence, ecologically speaking, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are more important than we are.

Aspers of course would have agreed but would have rightly argued that in any case a world that cannot support the great majestic beasts that he loved so much could not in the long-term support man. Hence, to kill them off, as we are doing with so little concern in the name of economic development, is evidence of our aberrant values and of our sick society whose incredibly destructive economic policies must inevitably lead to our own extinction.

His admiration, if not his love, for these beasts, in particular for his gorillas, knew no bounds and nothing was too good for them. For instance, he managed to identify what, in their natural habitat, are their favourite foods, and either grew them in his spacious greenhouse or their closest temperate equivalents on his farm or else gathered them, in particular the “bind weed” that they love the most, in his woods or along the hedgerows.

“Mine is the only agricultural estate in the world”, he used to boast, “that is geared to a gorilla economy”. What gorilla delicacies he could not grow or gather he imported from all over the world, sugar bananas from Madras, rambutan from the Moluccas, starfruit from Java, sapodillas from the Bahamas, sugar-apples and ugly fruit from Jamaica, tamarillos and feijoas from Ecuador, and several varieties of mangoes from wherever they happened to be the most succulent at the time.

I remember that Gill, my first wife, who at the time was temporarily interned in University College Hospital, looked forward more than anything else (including seeing me) to the weekly visit of the lorry that stopped there on the way to Howletts and that would disgorge for her benefit the fruit that were undersize, overripe, slightly bruised, or otherwise unworthy of the attention of Guggis, Shamba, Juju, Baby-Doll, and Sidonie. Gill never questioned Aspers’s priorities.

Aspers, again as we all know, also believed in the importance of “bonding” even with what most people would regard as the fiercest of wild beasts. As we also know, this led to a number of dreadful accidents and both he and the very principle of bonding with wild animals were widely criticised. However, wild animals in captivity have a very special relationship with their keeper that can be highly charged with emotion. This is not surprising, for after all, animals are not machines, they have emotions just like us—and they need to feel loved by the keeper who plays such an important part in their life. If they do, then they are likely to be happier and better adjusted and, among other things, more likely to breed.

A behavioural scientist called Jill Mellen, who studied the lynxes, ocelots and other members of the cat family at Howletts and Port Lyme, was particularly impressed by the keeper-contact which she witnessed there, and for her it went some way towards explaining the extraordinary breeding record of these establishments. But perhaps still more illustrative is a story told to me by a very bright young woman, a close friend of my son Alexander, called Zandy Forbes, who is a scientist working in a Research Institute in New York.

She and her colleagues once tried to determine the relative effects on the health of captive rats of a number of different diets. These were tried out on five batches of rats, with inconclusive results. However, one batch fared far better than all the others, regardless of the diet that was fed to it. The researchers were flummoxed. Modern science could not provide an explanation. The batches occupied identical cages, the rats were derived from an identical stock, the age and sex distribution were identical, only the diet differed from one batch to the other.

Then one, perhaps more imaginative, researcher, noted what no-one else had done—something that the others may not have even deemed to be of any relevance—the keeper of the batch that did so well actually liked rats and bestowed on those in his care an unusual amount of tender loving care. I was not told whether this was ever stated when the results of the experiment were published. Quite possibly the researchers may not have dared to do so for fear of being ridiculed by their peers.

Finally, Aspers was clearly right in the way he accommodated the social nature of his gorillas and of his other social animals, which few would-be breeders have done. The physical and mental welfare of social animals, which of course are indissociable, requires that they be properly brought up within their respective social groups—in the case of humans within their family and community. In this way they are “socialised”, i.e. they have learned how to fulfil their essential functions within these key social groups. That is what education has traditionally been all about in normal human societies—something we have quite forgotten today.

Lord Zuckerman, at one time our government’s Chief Scientist, and also President of the London Zoo, and who was no ally of Aspers, completely failed to understand this obvious principle. On the basis of his detailed study of the baboons in the London Zoo he decreed that baboons as a species were individualistic, aggressive, and thoroughly unpleasant.

What he failed to realize was that the baboons he examined were far from normal baboons. Rather than having been brought up in normal social groupings they had simply been thrown together as it was convenient to do so. They were in fact asocialized, alienated, and largely delinquent baboons, rather like our football hooligans, most of whom, I am sure, were brought up in similar circumstances.

For Aspers of course all this was quite obvious. His gorillas were well socialized and formed cohesive family groups—and that was clearly another reason why he was such a successful breeder. He told me once of a gorilla breeding programme at Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo. The “Gorillarium” put up for this purpose cost some 40 million dollars (I think that was the sum he mentioned). It was a high-tech, state-of-the-art, establishment, bristling with computers (provided free by the Sony Corporation), with closed-circuit television and rows of PhD’s monitoring the gorillas’ every move.

The trouble (as I understood it) was firstly that there was no keeper-contact. Watching them at a distance on closed-circuit television is no substitute for playing with them, let alone for embracing them. Also, like Zuckerman’s baboons, they were asocialized and hence largely alienated. Socialization is a slow learning process which must occur within the correct social setting. There is no quick-fix high-tech substitute for it.

So, not surprisingly, the gorilla breeding programme failed to breed a single gorilla. The Japanese scientists were, of course, aware that Aspers had bred more than 60 gorillas—using very different methods—and had the good sense and generosity of mind to ask him to send them one of his colleagues to explain to them the secrets of his success, which he dully did, with, I presume and hope, the best possible results.

The lesson is clear. If Aspers was one of the greatest breeders of all time of gorillas and other great beasts, it is at once because of his unique knowledge, acquired over 40 years of close personal and emotional contact with them, and because of his courage to apply it, however unfashionable it might be and however criticized he was for doing so.

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