Many will be deeply moved by the sight of a toddler beating her chest with tiny fists while a 300lb gorilla lounges alongside her, eating a kiwi fruit. They will laugh as the two toss straw over their heads and gasp when one of the world’s largest primates leans forward to give the little girl a tender peck on the cheek.
Others, however, will be horrified. More than once, the gorilla gathers the girl in her arms, carrying her off as she would one of her young. The bond between the playmates is unmistakable despite the the grainy VHS footage being more than 20 years old.
Dressed in navy jumper and light blue trousers, 18-month-old Tansy Aspinall romps in the sunshine, one minute swaying on a rope swing, the next tumbling down the slide, tummy first, her not-so-little friend behind her. Not-so-little being the operative phrase. For Tansy’s playground is, in fact, an animal pen at Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent and her chums are western lowland gorillas.
Controversial parenting? A photo taken in 1990, shows Tansy Aspinall in the arms of an adult gorilla at Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent
Tansy, now 23, agrees. She says: ‘I obviously understand that people might find it quite shocking seeing a baby going in with the gorillas because that’s how they have been brought up – to see gorillas in that King Kong kind of way. But really gorillas are such wonderful, gentle animals and they’re so human-like. So I hope it’s a way of people understanding how gentle and kind gorillas really are.’
She was too young to remember the video taken at Howletts, the Palladian mansion that her grandfather, the gambler John Aspinall, bought after a particularly good night at the tables.
Laughing or crying? Video clip of 18-month-old Tansy Aspinall playing alone with one of Dad’s gorillas
No fear: The toddler was filmed 19 years ago by Damian and has been kept secret because of some fears that it might have provoked a backlash from childcare experts because of the risk
Gorilla-hug: The young girl is smothered by the 300lb powerful adult
Aspinall filled the house and grounds with animals, including tigers, wolves and gorillas. He also brought the pets he had kept in his previous home in London’s Eaton Square including a leopard, a Himalayan bear and a capuchin monkey. In time, the animals were moved outdoors and Howletts became a wildlife park.
On John’s death in 2000, Damian took control and set up the Aspinall Foundation, a conservation initiative to return captive-bred animals into the wild. His foundation has now bred more captive animals – and reintroduced them into the wild – than any other organisation in Europe. There have been 139 gorilla births, 33 black rhinos and 20 African elephants. The animals are released into reserves in Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the foundation has approximately a million acres of guarded land.
Contrary to popular belief, this is no rich man’s hobby. True, Damian is wealthy thanks to the chain of casinos he set up with media mogul Kerry Packer’s son James – but it is all self-made money. His father refused to help him financially, and at the time of his death, Howletts was running at a loss of millions.
Gorilla-loving father Damian Aspinall, 52, with his daughter Tansy Aspinall (now 23)
John Aspinall was the owner of Howletts and grandfather to Tansy Aspinall
Damian has not only ensured its survival but turned it into a truly groundbreaking conservation project. Tansy also wants to play a part in the foundation’s work – mainly, she says, because of her childhood experiences.
‘I don’t really remember that specific moment with the gorillas but I do remember playing with them,’ says Tansy, who has just completed a degree in politics at Bristol University and is ‘on the job hunt’.
‘I don’t have any of the fear of gorillas that people normally have. I just feel love and warmth. Of all the animals, gorillas are my favourite. And that’s because they were always something I went in with as a child. I remember them being so gentle – they almost treated me as if I was one of their own little babies.’
Ambam the gorilla shows how he can walk like a human at Howletts
Damian says: ‘I wouldn’t put my children or daughters in with an adult tiger or a lion regardless of the relationship – but gorillas are different.’ Even so, times have changed, something Damian accepts. Tansy and her younger sister, Clary, 20, are Damian’s daughters with his first wife, Louise Sebag-Montefiore. The couple divorced in 1997. Both girls were allowed to play with the gorillas but Freya, his eight-year-old daughter by his former partner, Donna Air, was not. He says: ‘I gave an interview when Freya was young and they said, “Would you take Freya in with the gorillas?” I said, “Yes, sure.” There was uproar. The police called and said if you do this we’re going to have to come and interview you and social services called and said, “We might take your child if you do this.” The usual absolute nonsense.’