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Meet the Millionaire Who Dedicated His Life to Raising Gorillas and Releasing Them into the Wild

Damian Aspinall is a casino-owning millionaire, environmentalist and animal lover who has made it his life’s mission to raise gorillas and release them into the wild. And in order to make that happen, the self-made businessman set up the Aspinall Foundation, through which he has raised over 60 gorillas in England and released them to secure locations in Africa.

Aspinall, who was once known for his party lifestyle and for dating supermodels like Naomi Campbell has now devoted his life to deepening the connection he has always shared with the animal kingdom. Apart from the Aspinall Foundation, he also runs Howletts and Port Lympne wildlife parks in Kent. It is his belief that animals should have as much right to happiness as humans do.

His deep-rooted connection with animals goes all the way back to his childhood – his father John, Aspinall, was a gambler and maverick zoo keeper. So he grew up around his father’s exotic pets, developing an all-consuming passion for wildlife as he got older. “It’s magic crossing the species boundaries, and the greatest thing about being alive,” said the 54-year-old. “You can’t explain it to people who don’t have it.”

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Photo: Aspinall Foundation/Facebook

“When you look at your cats or dogs and they look into your eyes, there’s an understanding and a level of love like they’re your children,” he added. “You see their pain, you see their love and you instinctively understand their wants and needs. Imagine having that with primates and lions!”

It isn’t hard for him to picture a world where animals and humans coexist peacefully. He was brought up at Howletts, his father’s 700-acre estate in Kent, where his father’s pets prowled the grounds freely. They were pampered with the freshest of fruits and vegetables, roasts and even chocolates. Aspinall describes this phase of his life as ‘an extraordinarily blessed childhood’.

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Photo: Aspinall Foundation/Facebook

He even admitted that he actually feels closer to animals than he does with humans. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve always felt disconnected, and humans inevitably let you down – animals never do,” he said. “There’s more of an honesty and purity there. I find peace among them. When I’m with them, the world stops and nothing else matters. You just don’t get that with humans. It probably sounds corny, but it’s just pure unadulterated honey, and you soak it up.”

In fact, his earliest memories are of a female gorilla that became his surrogate mother. He remembers being virtually raised by apes – he was actually placed in the arms of the female gorilla as an infant. And when he was stuck on a tree once, it was the same gorilla that came to his rescue. “She came up, put me on her back and climbed back down, wiped away my tears and spent the day comforting me.”

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Photo: Aspinall Foundation/Facebook

When Aspinall’s father died in 2000, he took over the wildlife parks that were losing £4 million a year. So he turned to the casino business to make money and ended up making millions. Admirably, he has used all his profits to create country estates for his wild animals, and keep his charities afloat. And then he decided to fulfil his father’s dream of raising and returning gorillas to the wild.

“When my father first came up with the idea, he was laughed at,” Aspinall recalled. “But we’ve been doing it successfully for years and even though we’ve introduced 60 gorillas back to the wild, no one else has introduced any.”

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Photo: video caption

“These animals have a right to go home. All this rubbish about ‘They’ve lost their wild instincts’ said by some scientists – what do they know? Who are we to play God and say they can’t go back? Zoos are barbaric places. It’s like locking children up – it’s deeply unethical.”

Aspinall’s admirable project caught media attention in 2012, when he decided to go back to the jungle in search of one of his former hairy wards. He didn’t really expect Kwibi the gorilla to recognize him after five long years, but what happened during that unforgettable reunion completely took him by surprise.

Searching for a particular gorilla deep in the African jungle is no mean feat – it’s a lot like searching for a needle in a haystack. But after days of looking, he finally managed to locate the familiar face. Before approaching Kwibi, Aspinall warned his team about the potential dangers involved – he asked them to distract the animal if he became hostile.

As it turned out none of those precautions were necessary. The moment Kwibi set eyes on Aspinall, he recognised his old friend and ran forwards to greet him. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Aspinall. “He embraced me and he was talking to me all the time. And it was fine. I was actually a bit more worried when he started introducing me to his wives, because some of them are wild and don’t know me.”

“He didn’t want me to go,” Aspinall added. “And it was actually very difficult leaving him.”

The heartwarming reunion was captured on video – you’ve got to watch the footage of Kwibi greeting Aspinall like an old friend. It is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.

As beautiful as Aspinall’s story is, it’s also great to know that his kids share his passion for wildlife. His daughters – Tansy, 24, and Clary, 21, are both keen to carry on the conservation work started by their grandfather. And 10-year-old Freya, his daughter from his second marriage, is mad about animals too.

Sources: The Guardian, 60 Minutes