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When you meet a gorilla, you should look down modestly and rumble a low, friendly growl deep in your chest. It is only polite, and gorillas know the importance of manners. Our two guides had been chatting with us as we entered the gorillas’ living space. Suddenly the two men began growling to left and right. We were startled (they had been so charming up to that), and then laughed excitedly: nothing was going to be predictable today. The next few hours were about to overturn all our former assumptions about zoos. This was the moment of contact: we were in the presence of gorillas.

It was a freezing January day in the south of England and the gorillas were mostly inside in their private living quarters where it was cosy. The place smelt of warm bodies, soft stable smells—nothing rank, just a healthy, homely waft of someone there. There were many presences in the big space. Smaller monkeys flittered and chittered in the high reaches of the sturdy grilled walls and ceilings, diving along the ropes and streaking across the beams, or sitting nibbling a piece of fruit.

There were several gorilla youngsters romping about and pestering the adults, who either played with or ignored them as they went about their business. They were so busy; atypical of the usual gloomy, bored zoo gorilla. This was Kijo’s group. Kijo is a 22-year-old silverback, a dominant male gorilla with five females. There are five of his offspring as well: three female, two male, ranging from five years to six months old. His is one of eight groups, totalling 71 gorillas at Howletts & Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks, the largest number of captive breeding gorillas in the world.

‘We put the monkeys there because we thought they’d get on with each other and it would be enriching for them,’ said Robert Boutwood, Administrative Director. Peter Litchfield, the Zoological Director, told us what kind of monkey they were—something to do with making it all more like home for them with a mix of species—but just at that moment it went over our heads. We were looking at gorillas, several gorillas, as they mooched about doing gorilla stuff: nibbling raw vegies, relaxing in the warmth of the deep straw litter that forms the floor for all the gorilla quarters throughout the two zoos. The space was divided into several different interconnecting ‘rooms’ where each gorilla could make a nest from straw and have a sleep.

These cage-like grilles are important to the gorillas’ physical and mental health, Peter Litchfield told us. Along with stout naval ropes and other climbing opportunities, they act as ‘forest’ to the animals, allowing them to climb as they would in their natural habitat, and in ways that are not possible in ‘rainforest’ enclosures in some zoos. Such enclosures sometimes have to protect their vegetation from the inmates with electric fences, so they can neither climb nor eat from the trees, leaving one with the impression that the ‘rainforest’ is there mainly for the human onlookers to imagine that they are viewing the gorillas in their natural habitat. Howletts & Port Lympne give the substance, not the shadow, of rainforest environment to the gorillas.

The keepers put their food on the roof of the vast enclosures as well as on the ground. The climbing means that these gorillas have much better pectoral muscles than the usual zoo gorilla. The deep straw litter cushions any falls and is much more like a forest floor than a tiled or earthen one.

In the Howletts indoor living area, one of the females was eating a leek in her own niche. She leaned close to the bars and looked calmly at us. ‘This one is Mushie,’ said Litchfield and growled softly again, talking gently to her. She passed the time of day with him but clearly was interested in us. This time I tried to imitate the greeting sound. It was, of course, impossible to go behind the bars into their space, as their keepers do, but Mushie was as close to me as someone sitting next to you on a bus. Then she pushed her leek through the bars to me. I made some sort of pretence of biting it and handed it back, but she was having none of it. Motioning to her mouth she insisted that I taste it. So I took a bite. Again, she gestured. Take another bite. I did, and in a roseate daze of joy handed it back to her. Mushie delicately peeled the outer layers of the leek down to the tender yellow-green middle, took a ladylike nibble and handed it to me once more. Again I tasted, but at this point there was a sudden commotion further up in another part of the quarters. Kijo was displaying: rushing up and down, banging the bars (they needed to be sturdy) and doing a bit of chest-thumping. He didn’t like being ignored. We took reluctant leave of Mushie and went over to where Kijo now sat with his back to us, ignoring us magnificently.

There is nothing to prepare you for the impact of the massiveness of a silverback. Female gorillas are more on the human scale at about 165cm and they weigh up to around 78 kilos. Males can be over six foot, but can weigh over 200 kilos. They are easily ten times stronger than a human of similar height: no steroids could make a man accumulate such muscle mass on shoulders, back and haunches. Yet the comparisons still bear weight: gorillas share 98 per cent of our DNA, have similar blood groups and can catch all the human diseases. (Chimpanzees are related even more closely with 98.4 per cent; orang-utans are a little further away with 97.6 per cent.) Gorillas communicate, devise and use tools, and have ordered social structures. They prey on no other creature, being mostly vegetarian, and at Howletts they have been known to enjoy a beer. ‘We can’t give them cans any more since aluminium cans came in,’ said Litchfield. ‘Steel ones were OK, but they’d tear up the aluminium ones and could cut themselves.’
Giving an occasional beer to a gorilla is a clue to why there is such a difference between Howletts/Port Lympne and other zoos. The difference was in the founder, John Aspinall, who died in 2001, aged 74.

As the millionaire proprietor of a gambling club in London, he understood calculated risk. In the 1950s he bought a tiger cub from Harrods and kept her in his Belgravia home, along with a Capuchin monkey and two Himalayan bears. As they grew, he realised they needed more space, and also that they were dangerous: his tiger cub, with one blow of her paw, killed a large dog that challenged her when Aspinall was walking her along the street late one night. Legend has it that a big win on the races then enabled him to buy a mansion and acreage in Kent: Howletts. There his collection of animals grew and his methods of keeping them became safer, though never conventional. He asserted controversially that animals should have regular physical contact with their keepers. It made sense in many ways: for one thing, they rarely needed tranquillising (always a risk to the animal) for relocation or veterinary treatment. In the mid-’80s he bought a much larger patch of land with a mansion some miles from Howletts at Port Lympne (pronounced ‘Lim’).There has always been risk involved in keeping of wild animals, in all zoos: since 1980, five keepers have died at their jobs in Aspinall’s wild animal parks.

Keepers had been killed in other zoos all over the world as well, but Aspinall’s high profile and different views ensured that there would be more media interest. Three were killed by tigers, two by elephants. In 1980, Zeya, a Siberian tigress, killed two keepers. (After the second killing Aspinall shot her himself.) The third death, in 1994, was more worrying. Robert Boutwood is honest about the distress caused by the third man’s death: Trevor Smith, like the other two, was a highly competent keeper, but perplexingly, unlike Zeya, the killer was a ‘bonded’ animal. That is, the tiger had been in close contact with Smith all its life; had been socialised and nurtured by him. It seemed to challenge all their theories.

Canterbury Council then attempted to ban Howletts from allowing keepers to have further contact with animals. There was a public outcry: after a petition of over 250,000 signatures, the council gave up. Nick Marx, the current head keeper of big cats, was interviewed on video about the tragedy, which he witnessed along with horrified visitors. Marx had a theory that the tiger made a mistake, that it momentarily treated Smith as prey and was unable to resist its instinct to deliver the killing bite to his neck. Marx was philosophical about whether he would meet the same fate. ‘I’m doing what I want to do; if it happens, it happens,’ he says. His obvious love for his charges matches that of his boss. But Boutwood told us that they have now instituted more stringent health and safety procedures, and with great regret, have decided to stop keeper contact with tigers older than 16 months. We stopped by the large tiger enclosure at Port Lympne when Boutwood noted a Siberian tiger that was ambling around the bushes and greeted it with a strange fnuffling sound (see break­out box). It approached and fnuffled back. We were highly impressed.

Aspinall’s legacy has been to make us see that there is a possibility of a human relationship with wild animals that is beneficial to them and not just feeding our curiosity about them. Too often a zoo will have functioned as a museum where we can take a last look at the creatures whose future we have destroyed. Zoos can be desperately sad places, not just because the animals are miserable and bored and imprisoned, but because in them we can feel that efforts to preserve individual animals, no matter how kindly meant, are doomed if their habitat is destroyed. And our priorities are so often harmful to animals, even indirectly. When Aspinall was asked to take over the running of London Zoo, he replied that they should sell the entire site for its enormous real estate value and house the animals in state-of-the-art parks elsewhere with the proceeds. It was impossible, he was told. London Zoo’s vintage cages had heritage status and must be preserved, even if no animals could be kept in them.

At Howletts there is a feeling of freshness and energy in the place. It feels more like a creche, or even a farm—but without the sense that animals are a commodity—more like a co-operative endeavour with the animals. This could be because they are so keen on bonding with the animals, treating these refugees with companionship and respect. Aspinall’s gift was to see this possibility: it showed in his determination to feed them gourmet tropical fruits and the occasional beer or chocolate. ‘Why feed a gorilla rambutans?’ someone asked him. ‘Why not?’ he replied.

His son Damian Aspinall, inheritor of the responsibility, along with Aspinall’s half-brother, James Osborne, said on the video John Aspinall: A Tribute that the animals honoured his father because he honoured them. Like him, the keepers and other people we met at Howletts and Port Lympne seem permanently affected by the animals they serve.

When asked if his association with the animals during his long career at Howletts had influenced him in regard to human relationships and interactions, Robert Boutwood said playfully, ‘Oh yes, they’re much more sensible than we are.’ More seriously, Boutwood reminded us of how easy it is for humans to forget their huge evolutionary advantages when comparing themselves with animals. He said that gorillas are not as adaptable as we, that they are much more fragile emotionally, and can die easily of illnesses if things go wrong for them. And things are going very wrong for so many gorillas and other great apes around the world. Places like Howletts are becoming like Noah’s ark. Creatures such as Przewalski horses and Barbary lions are now extinct in the wild: Howletts is breeding them successfully, and has a long-term policy of returning animals to their native habitat whenever possible. They have been trying to return gorillas to a sanctuary in Africa.

But it is terribly hard to do: too often that habitat is gone, or compromised by war, political corruption and disease and even if the animals were returned, they can be hunted ruthlessly again. Sometimes sanctuaries, by confining the animals to a relatively smaller area, can save poachers the trouble of looking for their prey.

Boutwood said that animals were honest and that their groups and social systems make you realise how supremely important your own close relationships are. The survival of an individual depends on the bonding with other individuals in the primary group. It begins with the mother who is of paramount importance: no infant can survive without maternal devotion. When zookeepers replace maternal care they often ‘save’ an individual animal only to set up a vicious circle—generations of animals who are in turn unable to rear young, who could never pass on their genes in the wild again.

Aspinall’s zoos have often had to hand-rear animals but he claimed that his policy of open contact between keepers and their charges can limit the problem of inability to rear. Animals are not stupid, says Boutwood. They know when they are in human territory; they know they are captive. This tension can be fatal to animals, and certainly interferes with their ability to breed. But if, as in Howletts & Port Lympne, they know their captors as friends, then they relax. A relaxed, happy animal will breed naturally. Aspinall’s unmatched breeding record reads like a list of triumphs: no-one else in the world has got honey badgers to breed in captivity. (Remember the stubborn little animal that clung to the baddie’s boot in The Gods Must Be Crazy? That was a honey badger.) There are around 68 different endangered animal species at his parks. More breeding gorillas than anywhere else outside Africa. Twenty-three black rhinos at Port Lympne—the largest group outside Africa. They seem to like it there: the video shows Aspinall shoving family-sized blocks of chocolate between slices of bread and feeding them to an eager rhino. The rhinos we saw that freezing day did not seem at all affected by the cold: they, like the gorillas, had warm indoor quarters and could go there if they wanted. But a huge cow ran up and greeted Boutwood, nosing over the fence as if expecting a treat. Her calf bleated eagerly. Her head seemed as big as a dinosaur’s to me—a metre long and furnished with huge horns, the formidable weapon that ironically dooms them to be poachers’ prey. ‘They thought a few years ago that if they cut off the horns then the poachers would leave them alone,’ said Boutwood, ‘but they killed them anyway so that they wouldn’t have the trouble of stalking them again for nothing.’

Aspinall never studied academic zoology and was characteristically proud of the fact. He claimed to work entirely from his observations of the animals in their natural state. There is, of course, something here of the tradition of the British amateur bordering on eccentricity. If feeding chocolate sandwiches to black rhinos is eccentric, then he certainly was eccentric. But then so was the disconcertingly friendly rhino, which thrived on it. And animals and people thrived on his largesse: he pumped over 100 million pounds into the local economy of Kent during his life at Howletts.

Howletts has never received any financial support from government: Aspinall left money to help the place cover the gaps for the next few years, but every year the place costs twice as much to run as it takes in from the gate. This is partly because it is run, as Boutwood and Litchfield said, first for the animals, second for the keepers and third for the public. They are trying to start up a scheme encouraging people to make small regular direct debits, but it will take time to build up.

When Paul Theroux wrote disdainfully in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (Penguin, 2002), of tourists intruding on gorillas’ ‘shrinking habitat so that they could boast of paddling paws and fingers with a silverback gorilla and his mates in the dripping seclusion of the bewildered apes’ bower’, he missed two important points. Almost the only hope for the endangered animals is for tourism to fill economic gaps caused by eliminating poaching. And the way to encourage that is to get people either to reconnect with animals living naturally, or to learn about them in places where they are happy and well cared for. Mushie could tell him a thing or two. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer. She had her head licked by a giraffe when she was nine. Some people think that explains a lot. Drawings of Mushie and Kijo by graphic artist Lucille Hughes.



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