December 11, 2017

Jus Animalium

A review of The Best of Friends, by John Aspinall. See more of John Aspinall’s remarkable conservation program here.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 6 No. 10, December 1976.


John Aspinall has devoted twenty years of his life and all the money he could lay his hands on, in building up his breeding colonies of threatened species at Howletts in Kent. As this book reveals, his primary concern is with gorillas and tigers. He has done everything to create the best possible conditions for his gorillas. This included building for them a unique ‘gorillarium’ of about an eighth of an acre, equipped with

“80 ropes, brachiating bars or hand walks, a thirty-foot chute, a heated swimming pool, an artificial tree in which they can make nests or take shelter from rain or sun, a massive drum, tubular steel spheres, cable reels and truck tyres.”

John Aspinall is not only concerned with animals in captivity. During the last 20 years, he has travelled widely, mainly in Africa and India, visiting the world’s remaining wildernesses and observing animals in the wild. He has built up an impressive collection of books on the behaviour of all the great mammals and, as is clearly revealed in the book, his knowledge of the subject is encyclopaedic.

Nor does he hesitate, as do many blinkered ethologists, to point out that man is a social primate and that the basic features of social primate behaviour also characterises ours. Among them, he cites – and this will not please many of our liberal friends – hierarchy, male dominance, sexual dimorphism and elitism.

One of his greatest achievements, however, is to have established a unique relationship with the animals at Howletts, especially the gorillas and tigers. He regards them as his friends and spends hours with them every day.

As Aspinall writes,

“to enter the world of a tiger; to join a wolf pack as a wolf; to be accepted as a member of a gorilla band and to live with them as they grow to maturity: these are some of the experiences which have become the daily routine at Howletts.”

This is no idle boast. The way he describes the most subtle nuances of the personality of each of his gorilla friends makes this apparent.

He is also keen to point out how unjustified is our fear of wild beasts. Gorillas are the most gentle of souls and tigers have the most excellent character. As he points out, an average of one person a year is killed in Britain by wild animals, usually a keeper, as compared with an average of two killed by dogs, seven by domestic bulls and 7,000 by motor cars.

Wolves are particularly gentle, according to Aspinall, and he regards the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a vicious calumny against them. Indeed, there is no record of a wolf ever killing anyone’s grandmother. Quite clearly it was that horrible Little Red Riding Hood who killed her grandmother and blamed it on the wolf.

His total faith in the good character of his friends is reflected in the extraordinary photographs in which he is seen playing and wrestling with adult tigers and gorillas and even more so in one of his baby son in the arms of an adult female gorilla.

To Aspinall, the greatest disaster the world faces today, is the systematic extermination of the larger mammals by industrial man. Well before the end of the century, gorillas and tigers, among many others, will have been exterminated in the wild.

His committal to wildlife preservation is total, indeed quasi-religious.

“Self-elected and self-appointed, I feel that I am a spokesman, however inadequate, for wild things and I ask the reader to join me in this role. Let us be the eyes of – the blinded, the voice of those whose I tongues we have torn out, the ears of those whose drums have been dulled by our crescendo. Wild nature has no vote, no influence, no power, no hope even, unless we range ourselves phalanx-like, at her side, and cordon her last places.”

He realises, of course, how hopeless the task is.

“That we still have a choice or a chance may itself be an illusion . . . [but] if one is dying of thirst in a desert even a mirage is welcome. Better to die stumbling forward lured by hallucinations than be wind-buried by the sands of despair.”

He ends up with his credo, which is worth printing in full.

“I believe a wildlifer must not expect to be rewarded with recognition or worldly approval. His work will be to him his recompense. Only in his own peace of mind and self-esteem will he find solace.

“I believe in Jus Animalium, the Rights of Beasts, and Jus Herbarum, the Rights of Plants. The right to exist as they have always existed, to live and let live. I believe in the Buddhist concept of Ahimsa – justice for all animate things. I believe in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of species of fauna and flora that the Earth can sustain without resultant deterioration of habitat and depletion of natural resources.

“I believe in the sanctity of the life systems, not in the sanctity of human life alone. The concept of sanctity of human life is the most damaging sophism that philosophy has ever propagated – it has rooted well. Its corollary – a belief in the insanctity of species other than man – is the cause of that damage. The destruction of this idea is a prerequisite for survival.

“I believe that wilderness is Earth’s greatest treasure. Wilderness is the bank on which all cheques are drawn. I believe our debt to nature is total, our willingness to pay anything back on account, barely discernible. I believe that unless we recognise this debt and renegotiate it, we write our own epitaph.

“I believe that there is an outside chance to save the earth and most of its tenants. This outside chance must be grasped with gambler’s hands.

“I believe that terrible risks must be taken and terrible passions aroused before these ends can hope to be accomplished. If a system is facing extreme pressures, only extreme counter-pressures are relevant, let alone likely to prove effective.

“I believe that all who subscribe to these testaments must act now; stand up and be counted. What friends Nature has, Nature needs.”

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