When we get married, we not only adopt our partner’s family, but we adopt their passions and interests. When Victoria married Damian Aspinall, it meant she’d have to get used to Damian’s lifelong love of animals. Not only was Damian the owner of two zoos, but he had helped raise two baby gorillas when he was still a child! Damian helped to rear the two baby gorillas until they were able to be released into the wild, an experience that bonded him so strongly to the gorillas that he still thought of them as part of his extended family. He even referred to them as his cousins!
Naturally, we want to introduce our spouses to our families, and Damian felt he needed to introduce his new wife to the two gorillas he had loved as a child. Of course, he couldn’t call the gorillas up and ask them where they lived. Instead, Damian set out for a long and difficult journey to find his two old friends. As you might imagine, the journey to find these two gorillas and finally introduce them to his wife was no ordinary trip! Read on to discover all the twists and turns that accompanied Damian and Victoria as they journeyed to reunite with Damian’s two wonderful primate family members.
Growing Up With Animals
Damian’s father, John Aspinall, founded Howletts Wild Animal Park in 1957. Damian grew up on the land with the animals, so he was acclimated to exotic, wild animals at a very young age.
Located in Kent, England, the Howletts is made up of 700 acres. Not only is this land Damian’s birthplace, but a wonderful and fantastic array of animals call this large estate home as well!
Amazingly, Damian grew so connected to the animals on the Howletts estate that he developed familial connections with some of them. One gorilla in particular acted in a maternal fashion with Damian. He recants tales of this motherly gorilla hoisting him onto her back when he was stuck in a tree as a small child and bringing him safely down to ground-level.
Not only did she rescue Damian, but she wiped away his tears and gave him comfort in his time of need. How incredible is that?
A Lineage Of Animal Protection
Damian’s father, John, set up the Aspinall Foundation to protect wildlife shortly before he founded Howletts Wild Animal Park. All donations and proceeds connected to the foundation are used to promote the conservation of wildlife habitat and safety. Additionally, the organization has founded two zoos, Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and of course, Howletts.
Both wildlife parks are used to provide habitat for animals in need as well as to provide a source of education for people who visit the parks.
Port Lympne and Howletts are both locations where rare and endangered animals are bred, including animals like gorillas and tigers. Additionally, the Aspinall Foundation has a special project for gorillas in which they work to reintroduce bred and orphaned gorillas back into the wild. The rehabilitated gorillas are released at Plateau Bateke National Park in Gabon, Africa.
After Damian’s father passed away, it became his responsibility to take over the Aspinall Foundation. Having been raised with the animals since he was a child, Damian was not only up to the task, but he was excited to implement new plans—plans he had been dreaming up from a very young age.
Damian had a strong and personal connection to animals partly because he spent more time with the animals at Howletts than he did with humans. Friends were rarely allowed to come play with Damian because their parents were afraid of the “dangerous” animals they might encounter on his property.
Partly for that reason, Damian grew closer to his animal friends than he did to his human ones as a child.
First-Hand From Damian
“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 inevitable let you down. Animals never do. There’s more of an honesty and purity there.”
Damian made these comments to the Daily Mail and reveals his strong and personal connection to the animals he grew up with in his interview with them.
Tigers, Bison, And Wolves—Oh My!
Despite his potential alienation from his human friends due to his peculiar boyhood home, Damian comments that he had, “an extraordinarily blessed childhood.” He continues on, “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.”
It’s hard to imagine having tigers, bison, and wolves as playmates, but it must have been an incredible experience—and what a great thing to capture on film!
Not Always Friendly
Not every interaction in on the wildlife preserve was friendly for Damian. He recalls one specific time when a few of the animals and him were chased by a large swarm of wasps after accidentally upsetting a nest.
The animals and Damian had to quickly race away from the angry wasps and dive into a nearby pond to escape their wrath. Luckily, they escaped mostly unscathed.
Damian’s father refused to help him financially. Though it wasn’t his passion, he made his fortune through real-estate. After Damian’s father passed, there was no money left over for his son.
Despite having to make it on his own, Damian has had much success and is a millionaire today.
No Money In The Bank
In regards to the estate Damian’s father left to him upon his death Damian comments, “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.” More of a labor of love than anything, Damian was able to revitalize the parks that his father left behind with lots of hard work and a passionate drive to make the parks succeed.
Throughout his childhood, Damian had the unique opportunity to raise multiple baby gorillas from birth. Throughout these experiences, Damian would develop strong bonds with the baby gorillas—even considering them to be children of his own.
Two gorillas that Damian grew especially fond of were baby males, named Djalta and Ima.
The Beginning Of A Lifelong Bond
During his interview with the Daily Mail, Damian commented on Djalta and Ima, “Both of the gorillas were planned to be moved back into the wild in a protected habitat. Damian held a lifelong belief that every animal deserves happiness and a real chance for survival. He knew saving gorillas would help give them the opportunity for a rich and healthy life—the same opportunity he believes every human has a right to.
Damian also believes this shared right is the key to humanity’s coexistence with wildlife. However, little did Damian know, his relationship with Djalta and Ima was only beginning.
After a wonderful courtship, Victoria Fisher married Damian Aspinall in August of 2016. She joked that Damian came in a two-in-one package—you couldn’t fall in love with him without falling in love with his animals!
Upon getting married in Italy she felt as if she had also married Damian’s passion for animals. The passion was a part of who Damian was at his core, afterall!
A Chance Meeting
At a mutual friend’s dinner party, Damian and Victoria just happened to meet and hit it off. She agreed to go on a lunch date with him, but had no idea of his background or his unique passion. Throughout the date, Damian regaled Victoria with numerous stories regarding Howletts.
Curious about his interest in the wildlife preserve, Victoria Googled Damian when she got home and, “couldn’t believe it all existed.” Little did she know, Howlett’s would soon become a major part of Victoria’s life, too.
Regarding her early days with Damian Victoria comments, “I wouldn’t naturally go for that sort of setup 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.”
Sometimes, fate has a way. The two certainly weren’t an obvious pair, a fact that became evident when Damian first introduced Victoria to his primate extended family.
The Search For Old Friends
Throughout the process of raising them, Damian developed an especially strong bond with the two male gorillas, Djalta and Ima. Naturally, he wanted to introduce them to Victoria after the couple was married. It had been over a decade since Damian had been face-to-face with the two gorillas after the two were reintroduced into the wild at the park in Gabon.
He was excited to relocate his old friends and see how they were doing in the wild habitat they had been introduced to.
Butterflies In His Belly
Despite his fond memories of Djalta and Ima, Damian felt nervous to reunite with them. They had developed what felt like a strong and lasting relationship while he was raising the two gorillas at Howletts, but he felt a sense of unease nonetheless.
What if Djalta and Ima did not remember him? What if they wanted nothing to do with him once he found them? What if he could not find them at all?
Though he had initial feelings of trepidation, Damian was fairly certain Djalta and Ima would at least recognize him, though he wasn’t sure how they would react to him otherwise. However, when it came to Victoria meeting the two gorillas it was a completely different story. She was a complete stranger and full-grown male gorillas could be somewhat unpredictable.
They are large, strong, and can be territorial, so anticipating how they would react when Damian and Victoria approached them in the wild was extremely difficult. Damian had to push his valid concerns aside momentarily, as he was getting ahead of himself. He had not yet even located his old friends in the vast, African wildlife reserve!
Trip To Gabon
As Damian and Victoria boarded the plane to Gabon, his feelings of excitement rushed back to him. Fond memories of his old friends, Djalta and Ima, came to him in waves—he couldn’t wait to see them again. At the same time, he had Victoria along with him and he couldn’t help but feel nervous for her.
The couple took along a team of experts which helped to quell some anxieties, but there still remained a tension in the air. This was a risky endeavor indeed, and it was still unclear how successful it would be.
The Search Begins
Damian and Victoria knew they had to let go of their fears and accept whatever the future had in store for them regarding their meeting with Djalta and Ima. One of them very well could recieve an, especially Victoria, but they could not come all this way and not at least try to find the two gorillas.
If they let fear take control, they would never have the amazing opportunity to potentially forge a relationship with these two gorillas. The journey to find the gorillas would be long and difficult, but they were up to the task.
Miles To Go
It felt like Victoria and Damian had already traveled quite a bit as they existed the airplane that had taken them from the U.K. all the way to Gabon, but this was just the beginning of their journey.
They had the experts with them and they had a general idea of where the gorillas were located, but the preserve where Djalta and Ima were released was huge and Victoria and Damian did not have much to go on when it came to finding them.
Planes, Boats, And Automobiles
Damian and Victoria still had a long way to go if they were going to have any luck finding Djalta and Ima. They had to hike by foot along very difficult and treacherous trails, then take a long boat ride down the Mpassa river, which is filled with crocodiles, and into the jungle within the preserve where Djalta and Ima were located.
Luckily, there were GPS locators attached to the two gorillas. Unfortunately, these locators only gave a general location, so it would still take some hard work to actually locate them.
Though Djalta and Ima had some contact with humans throughout the years on the preserve, they still had a large amount of land to roam on and it would be very difficult to pinpoint their exact location.
Damian anticipated the moment when he would reunite with Djalta and Ima, and knew he would have to approach them very slowly so he would not scare or startle them Especially because he was bringing his wife along with him.
The team searched tirelessly for hours upon end in the dense, hot jungle on the preserve in Gabon. They were becoming exhausted and losing all hope of finding Djalta and Ima that day. However, they knew that the search was going to be hard ahead of time, and had prepared themselves for such a situation.
Luckily, they had some extra technological help along with them that would make the search much easier.
State Of The Art
Though the GPS locators on Djalta and Ima gave the team a general location of the gorillas’ whereabouts, they had no idea where exactly the two resided. The team brought along some state of the art drones, however, that would help solve their current problem. The Drones were able to be linked up to Damian’s smartphone, so he could send them up into the air, then see if he could spot Djalata and Ima amidst the ;landscape from a bird’s eye perspective.
Miraculously, the approach worked and them team was soon on route to the two gorillas. Now all they had to do was hope the meeting would go as smoothly as planned.
The Tranquil Location
Fortuitously, Djalta and Ima were hanging out near a river bank. This was a calm location that contained minimal stressors—a perfect place for a reunion. The team approached the two very slowly by boat in the river, making sure not to startle or sneak up on them.
So far, Djalta and Ima showed no signs of aggression or aggravation. If anything, they seemed curious.
Meeting At Last
Damian could not believe his eyes when he saw Djalta and Ima. It was like gazing upon old friends—friends that had gotten much much larger and stronger! He was excited to see them, but he knew he had to act calmly. His initial feelings of fear began to return. He was still unsure whether or not the two would recognize him and he had no idea of how they would react to Victoria.
The first signs were good. It was a reassuring sign that Djalta and Ima seemed curious about the boat rather than aggressive, but the boat was still slowly approaching and Damian knew from spending so much time with gorillas that their attitudes could change in a split second.
Gorillas are usually not keen to interact with humans. Of course, Djalta and Ima had been raised with humans, but it had been many years since they had had direct contact with a person. They are generally shy, but if they feel threatened or provoked they can be a force to be reckoned with.
Anyone who has seen a full grown gorilla knows how large they are and how strong they are. They definitely aren’t an animal you want to make angry!
One Wrong Move
Though things were going well so far, it only takes one wrong move to turn a tranquil situation into a disaster. Gorillas do not like to be surprised, they take acts of surprise as acts of aggression and will respond accordingly. Damian was very, very careful in this regard.
The last thing he wanted was to have a bad or dangerous meeting with his old friends, especially with Victoria to account for!
Get Rid Of The Drone
The boat drew closer and closer to Djalta and Ima. Knowing what they did about surprising gorillas, the team took every action they could to avoid overstimulating the pair.
They quickly yet cautiously flew the drones back and put them away, not wanting their presence to add any stress to their meeting with Djalta and Ima.
Slow And Steady
In addition to removing the drones, the boat moved at an extremely slow and steady pace. They did not want to approach too fast, nor did they want to make any sudden or jerky movements that might upset the gorillas.
Damian knew that gorillas do not always react to humans in a predictable manner, sometimes they are fine, other times they become upset. Knowing this, the team tried to control as many variables of their own as possible in order to help ensure their safety.
Would They Remember?
As it became time to exit the boat and interact with the gorillas, Damian decided he would be the first one to approach Djalta and Ima. He had raised them, after all, and he was extremely curious as to whether or not they would remember him. He seemed like the safest bet to take the plunge and meet the gorillas face-to-face.
However, it had been 14 years since he had last spent time with Djalta and Ima and there was no telling what would happen next.
The Moment of Approach
The boat stopped a good distance away from where Djalta and Ima resided. Damian did not want the motor’s sound to scare the two gorillas, so he decided to exit the boat and wade in the waist-high water towards the gorillas very, very cautiously.
He crept forward, nervously approaching them but trying to maintain a calm attitude.
Damian kept his stature low. He did not want to appear taller than the gorillas, as this could be interpreted as a sign of aggression. Crouching, he inched nearer and nearer towards the gorillas. They seemed to be alright with his movements and did not make any signals that they felt threatened by his presence. Upon being near Damian for only a short amount of time, the gorillas began to make small, grunting noises.
Damian recognized the noises and knew that they were friendly sounds, he then mimicked the sounds to signal that he was friendly as well. He described them as something between a grunt and a gurgle, like a sound a baby might make. After all these years, it appeared that Djalta and Ima did in fact remember Damian!
Upon seeing how well the gorillas reacted to Damian, the team decided it would be alright for Victoria to exit the boat and give meeting them a chance. At long last, Damian would finally get to introduce his friends to his wife! As Damian had, Victoria slowly exited the boat and crouched low as she waded through the water toward Damian and the gorillas. Regarding the experience Victoria commented, “I decided to gently ease my way ashore. I didn’t want to frighten them and I wanted to make sure they were relaxed.”
Djalta and Ima had already taken a liking to Damian, but they were already familiar with him. With Victoria, the situation was a bit more risky, “I was incredibly nervous, but I trust Damian’s experience with these animals and he beckoned me over, so I knew it would be safe.”
As Victoria approached Djalta and Ima, they emitted the same sound they had made when Damian approached them. This was an excellent sign and signalled to the couple that the gorillas were welcoming Victoria, just as they had welcomed Victoria.
Things were going well, and Victoria’s nervousness began to ease.
Though they had emitted the friendly sounds, the gorillas were slow to take to Damian and so he was still very nervous as to how they would react to Victoria. However, he continued to beckon her onward, and she continued to slowly move forward towards Djalta and Ima.
What would happen next, however, was still very unclear and Damian remained concerned.
Hoping For A Warm Welcome
Victoria sat down near the edge of the river bank. Damian sat closer to Ima and Djalta, holding out hope that they would welcome Victoria to come in towards them, as they had done with him. He wanted more than anything for Victoria to be welcomed into the gorilla’s clan.
At that moment, one of the gorillas emitted a low, guttural sound. Though it was a startling sound, Damian knew that it meant something was good.
The sound was a signal that the gorillas were accepting Victoria and Damian could not have been more happy. His old friends were going to be friendly to his wife, which was everything he had been hoping for. As if on cue, one of the gorillas got up and went over to Victoria. He then gave her a nuzzle with his face, the ultimate sign of acceptance.
It was an incredible feeling to have an animal that could have killed her with one blow show such a friendly sign of affection!
The day was winding down, but the gorillas continued to show Damian and Victoria lots of affection. They gave the couple warm, big hugs and lots of sweet nuzzles throughout the meeting.
It was getting late, so Damian and Victoria decided they needed to leave the river bank and head in for the night, but they knew they would soon be seeing Djalta and Ima again.
Having undergone the nervous process of reuniting the day before, Damian and Victoria could not wait to see Djalta and Ima the next day. They returned to the same spot near the river bank hoping to see the friendly primate pair again.
Fortune was on their side, because Djalta and Ima were in the very same spot, as if they had been waiting for Damian and Victoria to return.
Ima’s Fondness Of Victoria
Ima seemed to take a real liking to Victoria right away. He seemed captivated with her, jumping and making happy noises upon her arrival, he rushed over and embraced her in a hug. They then began to play around with one another.
Victoria cuddled Ima and even sat in his lap as they showed one another continuous signs of affection.
Ima had quite a wonderful sense of curiosity when it came to Victoria. She was wearing a baseball cap and at one point, Ima removed it from her head, sniffed it, and then placed it on his own head! Just as one friend might do with another, Ima was trying on Victoria’s clothes!
Luckily the whole thing was caught on camera and can be found on YouTube so viewers can enjoy that hilarious and sweet moment.
As you might imagine, the video of Ima with Victoria’s hat went viral on YouTube almost overnight. It got lots of attention and was viewed over 12 million times, with over 46,000 likes.
Of course, Ima and Djalta don’t care about social media, but little do they know, they are quite the Internet sensations! They remain healthy and happy in the protected habitat in Gabon to this day.
Where do Gorillas Live?
Gorillas reside exclusively on the continent of Africa. Their habitat is tropical rainforests. There are two categories of gorillas, eastern and western. Eastern and western gorillas are quite different and the two groups probably emerged during the Ice Age.
Because they have been two distinct groups for so many years, they have evolved some distinguishing characteristics that are quite distinct.
Gorillas cannot survive outside of the rainforest, which is one more reason to help protect our planet’s rainforests. They only leave the forest if they need to find more food. Mountain gorillas can even climb higher than the tree line if they need to find food—their tracks have been spotted as high as 4,000 meters.
This will probably become more and more common as their natural habitat continues to dwindle.
As of now, all species of gorillas are either endangered or critically endangered. Djalta and Ima are western lowland gorillas, and their population has declined by almost 60% over the past 25 years. This is an estimation of course, because it is difficult to track just how many gorillas exist in the wild especially because they do not generally like to be around humans.
There are many reasons for the species decline, some of which include human caused loss of habitat, poaching for meat, sport, or trophy, and deadly diseases such as Ebola. If we want to preserve these wonderful animals, we need to make sure we are helping to preserve their habitat and fight against malevolent practices like poaching.
Should You Approach Gorillas?
Though Damian and Victoria had a wonderful experience with Djalta and Ima, Damian was very experienced with gorillas and knew the gorillas he was interacting with. As a rule, it is a good idea to leave wild animals alone. Gorillas are generally very shy and do not like to interact with humans. They will leave you alone as long as you leave them alone and do not do anything to provoke them. Usually due to human error, a gorilla can become dangerous under certain circumstances.
As stated before, it is important to never startle or surprise a gorillas, because they can take a surprise as a threatening action. They are very strong animals and are not to be reckoned with! They will act out if they feel threatened. Signs of aggression include loud roars and under extreme circumstances, bluff charging at their opponent. Again, it is a good rule of thumb to respect wildlife and not get too close!
What is bluff charging? A bluff charge is when a gorilla charges at whatever it perceives as a threat, then stops only a meter away from its target. This is an act of intimidation and ff the target remains calm and acts submissive, then the gorilla will usually leave them alone. They will not react violently if they don’t have to, as it is a lot of energy to get into a fight! However, if the target attempts to run, the gorilla may chase them. They are very fast and can easily catch a human target.
Once caught, the gorilla will usually bite whatever part of you it can get to first. Overall, it is a great idea to leave gorillas alone! As Damian and Victoria’s story shows, they are incredible creatures that deserve our respect as well as a healthy habitat where they can thrive and survive away from humans.