Zoo Owner John Aspinall Takes His Animals on Trust—and So Did Three of His (late) Zookeepers

Set amid the tranquil apple orchards of England’s Kent countryside, John Aspinall’s two privately owned zoos are pastoral enclaves where elephants, gorillas, tigers and some 35 other species thrive in idyllic surroundings. Pampered by their eccentric owner, the animals are tended by keepers who—according to a zoo brochure—”are encouraged to forge emotional bonds” with their charges.

Sometimes, though, when the beasts don’t reciprocate, Aspinall’s hold-that-tiger philosophy has proved fatal for his keepers. Last month keeper Mark Aitken, 22, was cleaning the elephant’s pen when Bindu, a four-ton bull elephant, coiled its trunk around his neck and battered him to death against a steel fence. The tragedy prompted a continuing investigation by Britain’s government safety inspectors, but the 58-year-old multimillionaire wildlife enthusiast and high-stakes gambler rejected suggestions that he should have his prized pachyderm shot for the offense. “There’s absolutely no evidence that Bindu attacked Mark,” Aspinall said. “More likely it rather pushily, perhaps affectionately, wrapped its trunk around his neck and pulled.” He added: “I value all life, but I do try to be on the side of the animals.”

In August 1980 a Siberian tigress named Zeya turned on keeper Brian Stocks, 29, and fatally mauled him. A month later the tigress struck again, killing assistant keeper Bob Wilson, 28. Only after this death did Aspinall dispatch the beast. “I shot her,” Aspinall wrote in a letter to the Times of London, “while Wilson was still in her jaws, his head submerged beneath the waters of the [tiger’s] pool.” The letter concluded: “On a happier note, in the last month six tiger cubs have been born…”

While Britain’s satirical journal Private Eye caustically branded Aspinall “a brute in human guise” over the elephant keeper’s death, the aristocratic gambler had earlier made more pleasant headlines. Fleet Street’s society pages lavished attention on him as co-owner of the newly opened Curzon Club, a sumptuous London haven for the world’s gambling elite. Aspinall and British financier Sir James Goldsmith jointly purchased the 18th-century Mayfair mansion for a reported $690,000 last November, then threw in another $4.1 million to refurbish it.

Today the club boasts more than 2,000 members—including a few dozen high rollers who fritter away as much as a million dollars a night on poker, roulette and blackjack. When Aspinall floated his casino operation as a public company, he collected $8.2 million in cash and shares valued at $33 million. “The Curzon Club has been a phenomenal success,” says the Guardian, “thanks to Aspinall’s uncanny ability to make habitués of the super-rich.” His secret, Aspinall once said, lay in creating an atmosphere “where English gentlemen can ruin themselves as elegantly and suicidally as did their ancestors 300 years ago.”

The note of cynicism is typical of Aspinall; with the exception of his third wife, Sarah, their son, Bassa, 11, two grown children from his first marriage and a few close friends, the raffish individualist has always been far more tolerant of wild beasts than of his own species. Aspinall raised his children with baby gorillas, spends most of his time cavorting with his 32 tigers and several 500-pound gorillas at Howletts—a 55-acre, 18th-century estate that is both a zoo and his home—and is notorious for outlandish remarks that make him sound less like Doctor Dolittle than Doctor Strangelove. “I would be happy to see three and a half billion people wiped off the earth,” he once said. “Let us look forward to the day when catastrophe strikes us down.”

Aspinall grew up in India, where his father was an army surgeon; he remembers a family friend walking two tigers on leashes. After studying at Oxford, where he earned a reputation as an expert poker player, he became an elegant fixture in London’s West End. He organized quasi-legal gambling parties in private homes, which reportedly made him his fortune. Nigel Dempster, Britain’s upper-crust gossip columnist and a distant relative, calls Aspinall “a throwback, an 18th-century character. I don’t think he gives a fig about anyone.”

As a zoologist too, Aspinall has always been controversial. Two visitors to Howletts have been mauled by his tigers and, until a fence-mending operation in 1978, wolves, deer, wild boars, a cheetah and a pair of gorillas all managed to escape their enclosures. To Aspinall’s credit, the zoos have successfully bred African elephants in captivity as well as nurturing a large colony of gorillas. “I give the animals space, love, privacy, attention and the best of everything,” he says—the same formula that has worked to different ends at the Curzon Club. So dedicated to his menagerie is Aspinall that he plans to make the beasts—and not his human friends or relatives—his beneficiaries upon his demise, which, given his fondness for swimming and frolicking with tigers, he acknowledges, could come suddenly. “I’ve given orders that I’m to be buried down by the tigers, and that the animal that kills me is on no account to be shot,” he says. “It’s an animal’s nature to kill, that’s all.” Call it tempting fate—but then, John Aspinall has always been a gambling man.

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