I accidentally saw the last few minutes of the everlasting CBS news show 60 Minutes last night, and was horrified. It was about one Damian Aspinall and his Exciting Adventure of taking some captive-raised gorillas to Africa and abandoning them there. At the end Leslie Stahl said, “I wish we could end on an optimistic note but we can’t. A month later all five adult females were found dead” and so was the one juvenile.
Five adult female gorillas killed by the actions of their “owner” – a critically endangered species. I went incandescent with rage. I know, I’m always doing that, but then I’m always being given reasons, aren’t I.
I used to work up close and personal with gorillas at the zoo.
A report on 60 Minutes this evening described the plight of British aristocrat Damian Aspinall, whose father raised a private menagerie of lowland gorillas. After his father died, he came to the conclusion that keeping wild animals in a zoo was wrong and cruel to animals. To rectify his father’s error, he decided to send gorillas that had been raised in Britain to Gabon in West Africa. Among those he sent were a troop of eleven gorillas whom had trained in a “gorilla school” to prepare them for the wild.
Five out of the eleven died within a month of being released.
“Private menagerie” gives a slightly misleading impression. Howletts (that’s what it’s called, and there’s another branch at and called Port Lympne) is open to the public, and it has had huge success getting gorillas to breed and raise the young. I once went to Howletts, in 1986, soon after I stopped working at the Woodland Park Zoo (where I’d worked for six years). The gorillas were impressive. They had a huge enclosure full of stuff to do, and there were babies and youngsters galore. Howletts at that time had more gorilla births than any other zoo in the world, as far as I know. Most zoos would rejoice at one, and Howletts had several every year.
But Howletts had its problems. It had a bad name among zoo keepers, because John Aspinall had a firm policy that keepers had to be hands-on with the animals, and the result was that not one but two keepers were killed by tigers. We thought that was very uncool.
And then, of course, Howletts is captivity, and there’s plenty of controversy about keeping animals in captivity for entertainment and/or education, and the “private” status of Howletts meant he didn’t have to live up to rules or expectations that govern non-private zoos. So there are issues. But I don’t know of anybody who knows anything about the subject who thinks it’s a fabulous idea to raise animals in captivity and then take them to Gabon and drop them there. It’s fucking criminal, is what it is.
If you want a precedent, you can check out what happened to Lucy. It’s disgusting.
After Stahl said the adult females and one youngster were dead, there was a bit with Aspinall talking to the camera, saying if the gorillas all died his detractors would be overjoyed but he didn’t care, because blah blah blah. Well it’s not about him, it’s about them, so he should care!
Just from watching the 60 Minutes report, it was clear that this effort was doomed from the start. However well intentioned Aspinall may have been, expecting animals raised by humans to survive in the jungle was naïve bordering upon stupid. Gorilla experts such as those at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund warned that gorillas, being susceptible to shock when their surroundings were changed, would not do well in the wild after spending twenty years being cared for by people. Aspinall brushed off their advice, saying that only a “maverick” like himself could solve the problem of animal captivity.
However, the report quickly revealed the flaws in Aspinall’s plan. One video included in the story showed Aspinall reuniting with one of his favorite gorillas, Kwibi. Kwibi rushed out to see what was happening the minute he heard Aspinall’s boat nearby. As charming as the reunion may have been, rushing towards signs of human activity is extremely dangerous for a gorilla in the wild, given the threat posed by poachers. Furthermore, Kwibi, after meeting with Aspinall again, refused to let him go when he tried to leave. This was not the reaction of a wild animal, but of a domesticated animal that has been abandoned in the wild.
Furthermore, although the trainers at the “gorilla school” tried to teach the gorillas survival skills, to lure the animals into the wild they had to provide them with food. Associating humans with food is probably the best way to get a wild animal killed.
And it’s just fucking cruel. It’s like taking 4-year-old children to Gabon and abandoning them in the wilderness.
I’m amazed and horrified that no one was able to prevent him from doing this, and I seriously hope someone can prevent him from doing it to any more gorillas…which is his plan.