When Victoria married Damian Aspinall, she also married his passion for animals. As the owner of two zoos, he was no stranger to exotic and dangerous animals. Soon enough, Damian decided to take his wife to Gabon to introduce her to two gorillas that he helped raise and release into the wild more than a decade before. The search for the wild gorillas was long and hard, but nothing compared to what happened when they finally found the gorillas. Read on to find out what happened when Damian finally got to introduce his wife to two his long lost primate friends. Things didn’t exactly go as expected!
1. An Exotic Childhood
Damian Aspinall grew up around exotic animals. His father, John Aspinall, setup Howletts Wild Animal Park in 1957, where Damian grew up as a child. The 700-acre estate is located in Kent, England and is home to a wide array of exotic animals.
On the estate, Damian was practically raised by a surrogate gorilla mother. He even recalls that once as a child he was stuck in a tree and the gorilla came, put him on her back and climbed down. She even wiped away his tears and comforted him. But despite this warm connection Damian shared with animals from such a young age, nothing could have prepared him for what he would face with a group of gorillas he raised many years later.
2. The Aspinall Foundation
Howletts Wild Animal Park was established when John Aspinall set up the charity organization Aspinall Foundation. The organization promotes wildlife conservation and proceeded to set up two zoos in the United Kingdom — Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and Howletts Wild Animal Park.
Both of the locations breed rare and endangered animals, such as gorillas and tigers. The organization has a project for orphaned gorillas and a project that reintroduces bred gorillas back into the wild at Plateau Bateke National Park in Gabon. When Damian became the chairman of the organization after his father passed away, he had big and wonderful plans for the animals, and it all started when he was just a young child.
3. Dangerous Animals
Reminiscing about his childhood, Damian recalled that he never had many friends come over to his house due to all the potentially dangerous animals, and that he felt far more connected to animals growing up than he did to humans.
“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. To be perfectly honest, I’ve always felt disconnected, and humans inevitably let you down – animals never do. There’s more of an honesty and purity there,” Damian told Daily Mail.
4. Animal Friends
Despite all that, Damian says that he had “an extraordinarily blessed 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,” he went on to say.
Damian also recalled being chased, along with some animals, by a swarm of wasps after upsetting a nest. He and all of the animals raced to get away from them and he dove head first into a pond nearby in order to escape them.
5. Compelled for Change
While Damian Aspinall may be a millionaire today, it wasn’t always that way. His father, John, had refused to help him financially, so he made his fortune through real estate. When Damian’s father passed away, there was no money left over.
“You have to understand that when he died, there was no money in the bank and these parks were losing £4m a year. Now we have to find £10m a year,” Damian said. “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.”
6. Baby Gorillas
While Damian was growing up, he helped to raise a number of baby gorillas from birth. They became very close, as if they were children of his very own. Two of them were named Djalta and Ima, both male gorillas.
“Both of the gorillas were planned to be moved back into the wild in a protected habitat,” Damian explained in an interview. He firmly believed that saving the gorillas would ensure them the right to happiness, which animals so richly deserve just like humans. According to Damian, it’s the key to coexistence on the planet. But there was more on the cards for Damian and his plans.
7. Wolf Children
In August of 2016, Damian Aspinall married Victoria Fisher, who was a Burberry employee at the time, in Tuscany, Italy. She joked that when she married him, she also married his animals and his love for them. After all, they come as a two-in-one package.
And according to Victoria, that’s just fine. She loves the animals just as much as her husband does. ”It might sound crazy but I genuinely love the wolves as if they were my own children,” she says. “Kago even used to sleep in our bed!” But the circumstances in which Damian and Victoria met are even more interesting.
8. How They Met
Damian and Victoria met by chance at a dinner party and she, not knowing who he was, agreed to go out on a date with him. “At the lunch date he had all these stories about Howletts so I Googled him afterwards and couldn’t believe it all existed.”
“I wouldn’t naturally go for that sort of setup,” Victoria admitted to Daily Mail. “And 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,” she added. This couldn’t have been more true when Damian decided to introduce Victoria to his beloved gorillas.
9. Reintroduced Into the Wild
It had been over a decade since Djalta and Ima, the gorillas Damian had raised as a child, were reintroduced into the wild to a protected habitat. Damian was now eager to locate them and check up on their status living in the wild.
This wasn’t the first time Damian led an expedition to relocate gorillas that had been reintroduced into the wild, but this time would be different. He would be taking along his new wife, Victoria. But neither of them expected what was about to happen.
10. A Unique Bond
During Djalta and Ima’s time at Howletts Wild Animal Park, the two became very close to Damian. They had a special bond and Damian was eager to see if they would remember him and how they would react to him now that they were living in the wild.
Fully grown gorillas can also be dangerous as they are incredibly strong animals, and Damian was well aware of that. He wasn’t sure how they would react to Victoria, a stranger. However, before Damian could concern himself with this valid feeling of trepidation, he would have to locate the gorillas first in the very large area.
Soon enough, Damian, Victoria, and a small team of experts flew out to Gabon in the hope of locating the gorillas Djalta and Ima. Damian was very excited to see his old friends again, yet nervous about their reaction to Victoria, the newcomer.
The couple decided to put all their fears aside and went ahead with the excursion. They were well aware that someone could get injured, in this case, most likely Victoria if anyone, but they forged on anyway. However, finding the gorillas first would turn out to be much more challenging task than they imagined.
12. An Adventure
Attempting to locate the gorillas proved to be more challenging than the team had expected. The team traveled all the way from the United Kingdom to the coastal central African country of Gabon, but they had much farther to go if they were to find the gorillas.
Damian and Victoria were forced to traverse difficult landscape and take a long boat ride down the river along the jungle to get to the location where Djalta and Ima were supposed to be. Both of the gorillas had GPS locators attached to them, but that only provided a general location.
13. Getting Creative
Even though Djalta and Ima had been looked after throughout the years, there was still no telling where they would be in the dense jungle of the region. Also, Damian wanted to approach the gorillas slowly, as to not startle them.
After hours of searching the vast jungle, the team was just about to give up hope of ever finding Djalta and Ima. However, Damian, his wife, and the team had also come prepared for such a scenario and knew they’d have to get a little creative by using technology.
Since the devices attached to Djalta and Ima were not able to pinpoint their exact location, the team got creative and decided that the fastest way to locate them was with state of the art drones with cameras attached to them.
The drones were attached to Damian’s smartphone, so he could scour the terrain looking for Djalta and Ima from a bird’s eye perspective. With the help of the technology, they were finally able to locate the two gorillas. Damian could only hope the reunion would go down smoother than the search.
The strange flying object caught the gorillas’ attention and they slowly came out from behind the bushes, interested in what the device was. The came out cautiously, not knowing whether the drone was a friend or foe. They seemed confused at first.
But they didn’t show any angry or aggressive tendencies; they were more curious than anything. Luckily for Damian, Djalta and Ima were found next to a river bank. This was the perfect location for Victoria and the team to approach the gorillas slowly by boat.
16. The Moment of Truth
It was almost time to finally meet the gorillas, and tensions were high. Would the large primates remember Damian? Would they be aggressive after spending so much time away from humans? Those questions were all about to be answered soon.
Djalta and Ima quickly spotted the approaching boat carrying Damian, Victoria, and the crew. If anything, the two gorillas seemed intrigued by what was happening, but things can change very quickly when you’re dealing with wild animals. That’s exactly what Damian and Victoria were about to find out.
17. A Gorilla’s Nature
By nature, gorillas are very shy creatures that usually steer clear of humans. But they are also incredibly strong animals that can be deadly if provoked. It also doesn’t take much to provoke a gorilla. One wrong move could spell disaster!
All it takes to provoke a gorilla is one wrong move. If you do something to surprise a gorilla, they may easily mistake the movement as an act of aggression and react violently in response. But just how would Djalta and Ima react to the man who helped raise them? What’s more, how would they react to Victoria?
As the boat drew closer to the bank of the river where Djalta and Ima were located, the crew returned their drone back safely to them, not wanting to over stimulate the gorillas or have one of them attempt to catch the buzzing device.
The boat’s approach was very, very slow and steady. Knowing that a gorilla’s reaction to humans can be unpredictable and hard to read, Damian and the crew wanted to be as cautious as possible. There was a rush of nervous silence on the boat as they drew even closer.
19. The Perfect Strategy
Damian decided that he should be the first to approach the gorillas on land, seeing as he raised them and it was possible that they would remember him. But it had been 14 long years since Djalta and Ima had been returned to the wild.
Damian slowly exited the boat into the waist-high waters of the river. He didn’t want to bring the boat in too close to the gorillas for fear that the sound of the motor would startle them. Slowly, he crept forward.
Damian stayed low to the ground, making sure not to be taller than the gorillas and seem threatening to them. Luckily, the gorillas showed no sign of aggression and after being near Damian for a short time, they began to make noises.
Damian found the noises very familiar and knew what they meant. They were friendly noises that sound something like a grunt or a gurgle. After all, it appeared as if Djalta and Ima did remember Damian after so many years.
21. A Relaxed Approach
Damian could sense that both Djalta and Ima were comfortable with him, so he decided that it was finally time to introduce them to his wife, Victoria. She exited the boat and waded in the waist-high water, slowly approaching the bank of the river.
“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. Both Djalta and Ima took a liking to Damian, as it is possible that they remembered him, but they weren’t so easy going with Victoria.
22. Victoria’s Chance
As Damian sat on the bank of the river, Victoria slowly made her way through the waters. When she was just a few feet away Damian told her to stop and stay where she was. He wanted to wait for a sign that the gorillas weren’t going to be hostile or aggressive.
That’s when one of the gorillas made the same gurgling sound they had made to Damian; the first sign that they were going to be friendly to Victoria. Damian then told Victoria to come a bit closer, as things looked like they were going well. At least for the time being.
23. The Slow Approach
Despite his anticipation, the gorillas didn’t take to Damian right away, so he was very concerned by how they would react to his wife, Victoria. Nevertheless, she slowly approached the bank of the river and sat down near the edge.
Damian hoped that the gorillas would accept Victoria as part of his clan and welcome her in the same way they had welcomed him. That’s when one of the gorillas made a deep guttural sound, a sign that Damian took to mean something good.
Damian took the noise to mean that the gorillas had accepted Victoria and were going to be friendly with her. Then one of them came over to her and gave her a nuzzle with his face: a clear sign that the gorillas had accepted Victoria.
The two were very friendly, offering warm hugs and gentle nuzzles. From there, Damian and Victoria decided to call it a day and they left the bank of the river and the two gorillas behind. But that wouldn’t be the last they saw of each other.
25. The Next Day
Damian and Victoria returned to the same spot the very next day, hoping that both Djalta and Ima would be close by, or at least in the vicinity. Lucky for them, there were right there where Damian and his wife left them the previous day.
Ima was immediately captivated by Victoria, he came rushing over to her making happy noises of acceptance. Then, Victoria and Ima embraced in a hug and played around with each other. They were extremely friendly with one another. But then something happened that shocked Victoria.
26. The Hat
In an act of hilarity, Ima the gorilla took Victoria’s hat, sniffed it a bit, then placed it on his own head. Just like a human would. The video of the interaction between Victoria and the gorillas has been uploaded YouTube.
The YouTube video that Damian took quickly went viral, having been viewed on social media nearly 12 million times and liked some 46,000 times. The two gorillas, Djalta and Ima were transferred to the protected habitat in 2013 and remain there until today.
27. Gorilla Habitats
Gorillas live exclusively in African tropical rainforests and are divided into two categories, eastern and western gorillas. The gorillas were split at some point, most likely during the Ice Age. They have been separated for so long that they now have distinct characteristics.
Gorillas generally only leave the forest when looking for food. They cannot survive without the forest. Sometimes mountain gorillas climb higher than the tree line, but the tracks of these gorillas have even been found at altitudes as high as 4,000 meters.
28. Declining Population
In the past 25 years, the population of the western lowland gorilla, such as Djalta and Ima, has dropped by around 60%. Although the exact number is hard to calculate due to the gorilla’s shy nature, populations are rapidly dropping.
The decline in population is mainly due to human intervention and diseases such as Ebola. Poachers at times hunt gorillas for their meat, sport, or for trophies. Currently, all species of gorillas are either endangered or critically endangered. Something that Damian and his family are trying to change.
29. Are They Dangerous?
In general, gorillas are very shy by nature and are reserved towards humans. This means the primates will usually leave humans alone, not wanting to get too close. But gorillas can be dangerous under certain circumstances. Usually due to human error.
If a gorilla feels surprised or threatened in any way, it is possible that they will act out in violence to protect themselves, even if there is no real danger. A silverback male gorilla may respond with a loud roar or even bluff charges.
30. The Bluff
A bluff charge is when a gorilla charges at someone then stops around a meter from its target. If the target acts submissive then he has nothing to fear, and the gorilla will let them go as they didn’t react or act out in violence.
However, if the target of a bluff charge attempts to run away, then the gorilla will chase its target. Gorillas are fast animals and can easily catch a fleeing human. When caught, a gorilla will generally bite the first body part it can get to.
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