A Package Deal
When Victoria finally married the love of her life, she was fully aware of what she was getting herself into. When the couple tied the knot, Victoria knew that she wasn’t only marrying Damian, but also his animals.
Damian Aspinall, the owner of two zoos, was no stranger to exotic animals and the dangers that came with them. It wasn’t long before he persuaded his new wife to travel to Gabon to meet the two gorillas that he had raised and released back into the wild more than a decade before. The journey into the mountains was a long and difficult one, but when they finally found the elusive beasts, things definitely didn’t go as planned. Nothing could have prepared them for how they reacted to Victoria.
Damian Aspinall had a rather unusual upbringing. His father, John, had founded Howletts Wild Animal Park back in 1957, and this is where young Damian spent most of his childhood. Situated in Kent, England, the park is over 700 acres long and is home to a diverse array of exotic animals.
It was on this estate that Damian claims he formed a special bond with the resident gorillas. In fact, he was practically raised by one.
A Special Bond
As an adult, Damian recounts an incident when he was a child. He got stuck in a tree and a particularly maternal gorilla came to his aid – he even claims that she wiped away his tears, swung him onto her back, and took him back down to safety.
Although Damian fondly remembers the special relationship he had with the gorillas in his father’s park, nothing could have prepared him for his experience with another group of gorillas years later.
Howletts Wild Animal Park, established by John Aspinall, was set up when he founded the charity organization, The Aspinall Foundation. He built two zoos in name of wildlife conservation: Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and Howletts Wild Animal Park. Both of these zoos breed endangered and rare animals, such as tigers and gorillas. One particular project is the raising of orphaned gorillas and releasing them back into their natural habitat, Plateau Bateke National Park in Gabon.
When Damian’s father sadly passed away, Damian found himself chairman of the organization. And he had some wild ambitions for his father’s passion project.
Damian recalls that he never had many friends over to visit while he was growing up. This was due to all the dangerous animals who roamed around his home, and also because he claims that he has always felt a stronger connection to animals than to other people. “You don’t get playdates when you’ve got tigers in the garden. The odd mate came, otherwise it was just me and the animals,” Damian explains in an interview.
Despite his lack of friends, Damian says that he was perfectly content
An Unforgettable Childhood
“We’ve got Super 8 films from the ’60s of me as a seven-year-old, playing with tigers and bison around a tree or tearing around the lawns with a gang of wolves,” Damian recounts fondly. As an adult, he is now a millionaire.
But money hasn’t always come so easily for Damian — especially since his father, John Aspinall, had refused to help him financially.
A Self-Made Man
Damian Aspinall worked hard to make his fortune in the world of real estate. But, unfortunately, when his father passed away there was no money left to keep the parks he had loved so dearly afloat. With the parks losing around £4m per year – that’s over $5m – the future for the animals who called the park home looked bleak.
“I can see why the other family members didn’t want to be involved. My brother and sister had no interest in animals, but I was compelled to do it,” he explained. But there were more troubles up ahead.
Not What She Signed Up For
It was in August 2016 that Damian married Victoria Fisher. She was born and raised in Tuscany, Italy. But loving Damian came with a catch, as she quickly found out. At that time, Damian had moved into Howletts Wild Animal Park permanently.
And in his care was as an entire wolf pack! Kago, the alpha male wolf, even slept in his bed. But how did these lovebirds from worlds apart meet?
A Chance Meeting
Victoria had met Damian at a dinner party, where he wooed her with wild tales of growing up in the park. He was immediately smitten and asked her out on a date. But she could hardly believe all his wild stories.
“At the lunch date he had all these stories about Howletts, so I Googled him afterwards and couldn’t believe it all existed,” she recounted, laughing. “I wouldn’t naturally go for that sort of setup… I don’t think anyone would have put us together on paper. Damian would say the same thing – neither of us was looking for the other,” Victoria explained. Then, Damian decided to introduce her to his gorillas.
Djalta And Ima
Damian knew that it was time to find his old friends, Djalta and Ima — the two male gorillas that he had raised and released back into the wild over a decade ago. For all these years, he had often wondered about what had become of the pair that he had thought of and raised as his own children.
Although this wasn’t the first expedition Damian had lead, it would be his new wife’s first time visiting the forests of Gabon – and her first time meeting gorillas in the wild. Nobody could have predicted what would happen.
Wild And Unpredictable
Damian was all too aware that fully grown gorillas – especially male gorillas – can be extremely dangerous. Their strength and unpredictability made them legendary among the Gabon locals. Although he couldn’t wait to see his old friends Djalta and Ima again, he just couldn’t know how they would react.
He hoped that they would remember him, but more importantly, he wondered what they would do when they met his new wife. But, first things first. He needed to locate them.
Taking A Chance
Putting their fears aside, Victoria and Damian decided to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. Along with a few experts, they chartered a plane and flew out into the wild forests of Gabon. But on their flight, Damian couldn’t shake the growing sense of trepidation that was creeping up on him.
He was aware that the gorillas may not take kindly to Victoria, the newcomer. But he was willing to take that chance.
How To Find Them?
Damian and Victoria quickly found out that finding the gorillas was going to be a lot more difficult than they had hoped. They had to trudge through difficult mountain paths, take boat rides down the river, and hike through the jungle to reach their destination. Although both Djalta and Ima had GPS locators attached to them, the GPS did not provide their exact location, only an approximation.
They could be anywhere in the dense jungle. Then, the team decided to take a more creative approach.
As the GPS devices couldn’t provide an exact location of the gorillas, the team decided that the best way to pinpoint them would be to use state-of-the-art technology. They released drones with high definition cameras strapped to them, which were paired with Damian’s smartphone.
As the drones flew up the path and reached a clearing, the team had finally found what they were looking for.
Now Or Never
The gorillas emerged from the undergrowth, startled and confused by the unfamiliar drones buzzing overhead. They cautiously walked directly underneath them to try to ascertain whether the strange devices were a threat or not. Luckily for Damian, he immediately recognized Djalta and Ima near the riverbank.
It was now or never. It was decided that the team would approach slowly from the river.
Now that it was time to finally meet the gorillas, Damian and Victoria were growing increasingly nervous. Would they remember Damian after all these years? And would they accept Victoria? But the couple wouldn’t have to wait for long to find out. The gorillas spotted the boat approaching and moved closer, curious.
But Damian knew that their demeanor could change in a heartbeat, and that’s exactly what happened.
Gorillas are, by nature, elusive and shy creatures. They will do everything they can to avoid humans at all costs, retreating to the mountains and densely overgrown hilltops. Although they avoid conflict, they can be deadly when they feel threatened. They were in the gorillas’ domain now — Damian knew that one wrong move could mean disaster. The team had to move slowly to make sure that they didn’t startle the unpredictable animals.
But how would they react to Damian and Victoria?
The boat and crew drifted slowly to the riverbank, and Damian flew the drone back. As they drew nearer to Djalta and Ima, the crew fell silent. Everyone was waiting for the gorillas to make the first move, trying to anticipate what they would do next.
When they reached the land, it was Damian who moved off the boat, wading in waist-high water as he tried to approach them. Slowly… slowly.
So Far, So Good
When he reached dry land, he walked low to the ground, trying to present as little threat to the gorillas as possible. So far, so good. Then, Djalta and Ima began to make noises, low grunts at first, then gurgles and growls.
Damian knew what these noises meant – they recognized him! After making sure that the gorillas were comfortable with his presence, it was Victoria’s turn.
Trying Not To Make A Sound
Victoria, being careful not to make a splash, lowered herself into the water and began to wade toward her husband. “I decided to gently ease my way ashore. I didn’t want to frighten them and I wanted to make sure that they were relaxed,” Victoria said.
But although it was clear that the gorilla brothers had taken to Damian, they had a different reaction to Victoria.
As Victoria approached, Damian stopped her with a wave of his hand. She stood stock-still as they waited. Damian tied to gage if the gorillas were showing any signs of aggression towards her.
It was a heartstopping moment as they both waited for a sign. Then, Djalta began to make a sound from deep in his throat.
Grunts And Gurgles
It was the same gurgling sound that the gorilla had greeted Damian with! Damian took it as a very good sign – it seemed like the gorillas would allow Victoria to come a little closer. She reached the bank at sat quietly by the river’s edge, ready to bolt back to the boat at the first sign of trouble.
Then, Ima made a low, rumbling sound.
Damian took this as the sign he had been waiting for. Then, Djalta lumbered right up to Victoria and nuzzled her face. They had accepted her! After many hugs and friendly nuzzles, Victoria and Damian decided that it was time to retreat.
It had been a long day. But that wouldn’t be the last they saw of Djalta and Ima…
An Instant Connection
The couple and the crew returned to the same spot on the following day, hoping that the gorillas would still be close by. Luckily, they were right where they had left them – and this time Ima approached Victoria boldly. He rushed over to her, gurgling happily and embracing her.
It seemed that Ima had taken a liking to Victoria. Then, he did something unprecedented.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Ima the gorilla snatched Victoria’s hat right off her head and placed it on his own – just like a human would! The hilarious antics were all caught on film and uploaded to YouTube, where Djalta and Ima have since captured the hearts of millions.
The video quickly went viral, and more and more people wanted to know about these majestic creatures and their natural habitat.
Gorillas live exclusively in tropical rainforests in Africa. They are divided into two categories – Eastern and Western gorillas. These two species were likely separated from one another during the Ice Age and have developed their own distinct characteristics.
Although gorillas have been known to leave the forest when searching for food, they need the forest to survive.
A Dwindling Population
The gorilla population has been on a steep decline within the last 25 years. The western lowland gorilla’s numbers dropped by a staggering 60% and continues to drop at an alarming rate. This is mostly due to human interference and diseases such as Ebola.
Gorillas are also poached for meat, sport, and trophies. This has lead to all species of gorilla becoming endangered or critically endangered. This is what Damian and other conservationists like him are trying to change.
By uploading the video of his interactions with Djalta and Ima, Damian hopes to change the most common perceptions of these magnificent creatures. Generally, gorillas are shy animals and will avoid conflict. But, any attacks by gorillas that have occurred are largely due to human error.
If a gorilla feels threatened, they will defend themselves. Damian and Victoria prove that these animals need to be treated with respect and caution.
Damian and Victoria also hope to raise awareness of the gorilla’s plight. Damian’s rehabilitation project for gorillas and other endangered animals, as well as maintaining the two zoos, costs him around £10m a year (approximately $12.8m).
But what does Victoria have to say about her experience with the gorillas in their natural habitat?
A Humbling Experience
“It was the most beautiful and humbling experience and one which I will never forget. Somehow, because we were there on (Ima’s) territory, once I’d got over my initial fears, it seemed only natural to curl up in his lap,” she said.
“I hope that watching these gorillas, happy and free, will inspire those who believe, as we do, that the place for wildlife is in the wild rather than in captivity.”