Damian Aspinall grew up surrounded by animals. But nothing could have prepared him for the moment he reunited with two gorillas fourteen years after releasing them into the wild... as well as what happened when he brought his wife along to meet them.
It Started With a Zoo
When John Aspinall opened up Howletts Wild Animal Park back in 1957, he likely never imagined the animal-filled life that awaited his son. Initially a private zoo, Howletts was eventually opened up to the public in 1975.
But that was only the beginning of everything. John went on to establish the Aspinall Foundation, which to this day is a charity dedicated to promoting wildlife conservation. Aspinall used his resources to help breed endangered animals, including gorillas and tigers.
An Animal-Filled Childhood
Just a few years after the initial opening of Howletts Wild Animal Park, John welcomed his son, Damian Aspinall. The young child grew up surrounded by animals on the zoo grounds, which expanded hundreds of acres. This aspect of Damian's childhood affected many parts of who he became.
According to Damian, he even had a surrogate mom as a child. But this second mama wasn't human - she was a gorilla who lived at Howlett Wild Park. Aspinall recalled how one of the creatures once helped get him down from a tree and even comforted him afterward.
Difficulty Making Friends
While Damian would later have the likes of Prince William come to visit what later became his grounds, he didn't have as many visitors as a child living around the zoo. There weren't many families who wanted to send their kids around all of these possibly dangerous creatures.
"You don't get playdates when you've got tigers in the garden," Damian said in a Daily Mail interview. And so what did he do? Aspinall spent most of his time with the animals instead. "The odd mate came, otherwise it was just me and the animals," he added.
The Animals Were His Friends
But Damian didn't mind that his friends were mostly of the non-human species. "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," he explained to the Daily Mail.
And growing up with the animals meant a never-ending adventure. "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," Aspinall shared. And then things took a turn.
Damian came from a well-off family, but his dad pushed him to be a self-made man by not sharing the fortunes. So by the time John passed away, Damian had built a real estate empire that helped him take on his late father's vision. Who knows what might've happened to all of the animals otherwise...
"You have to understand that when he died, there was no money in the bank, and these parks were losing 4 million pounds a year. Now we have to find 10 million pounds a year," Damian explained. "I can see why the other family members didn't want to be involved."
As Damian took on responsibilities related to the estates and the foundation, he couldn't help but think about some long-lost friends he had growing up. Aspinall had helped raise quite a number of baby gorillas from birth, and he had a very special relationship with two of them.
The two possibly closest to Damian's heart were male gorillas named Djalta and Ima. These animals were no longer part of the Aspinall Foundation. "Both of the gorillas were planned to be moved back into the wild in a protected habitat," Damian detailed. Little did he know, a reunion awaited.
Meeting a Special Someone
But eventually, someone else was taking up most of the space in Damian's head. And this time, it was a human. Aspinall met Victoria Fisher at a party and asked her out on a date. Victoria agreed to meet - but she had no idea who he was or his family history.
"At the lunch date, he had all these stories about Howletts, so I Googled him afterward and couldn't believe it all existed," Victoria recalled. She realized Damian had truly grown up around animals. Fisher didn't imagine her life with someone like Damian, but the two clicked.
Marrying Into the Animal Family
"I wouldn't naturally go for that sort of setup," Victoria told Daily Mail of her relationship with Damian. "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." But once they met, there was no going back.
The lovebirds married in August of 2016. But tying the knot with Damian meant gaining more than just a husband: Victoria now had a whole animal family. "It might sound crazy, but I genuinely love the wolves as if they were my own children," she said. "[One of them] even used to sleep in our bed!"
But She Hadn't Met Them...
Some would say Damian and his animals and the Aspinall Foundation were attached at the hip. And Victoria knew when they made things official that she would be dedicating her life not only to Damian but to all of the animals he cared for. But there were two she still had yet to meet.
We're talking about Dhalta and Ima, of course. The two male gorillas that Damian once helped raised and who were later released into the wild. The more he thought about it, the more Aspinall felt it was time to reunite with his gorgeous pals. It was a big deal for many reasons.
Damian was a caretaker and a friend for Djalta and Ima while the animals were rehabilitated at Howletts Wild Animal Park. So Aspinall dreamed of seeing them again and imagined different scenarios in his head: would the gorillas remember him? Would they show excitement?
But Damian didn't want to go alone; he wanted Victoria to accompany him and meet these special friends. And that's where things could get dangerous. Gentle and intelligent animals, gorillas can also be dangerous if they feel threatened. Aspinall feared how they would react to his new wife.
Making Their Way
Victoria and Damian discussed the trip for a while. The couple would have to make their way to Gabon, a country in central Africa, where the gorillas had been released all those years ago. What would happen once they arrived? Would Djalta and Ima react well to Mrs. Aspinall?
They really had no way of knowing. But one thing was for sure: Damian desperately wanted to see his old friends. And so he and Victoria packed their bags, made their way to Gabon, and hoped for the best. But the adventures were only beginning... Now, they had to actually find the gorillas.
A Difficult Task
Before being released into the wild, caretakers had implanted GPS trackers on both Djalta and Ima. But the device gave only an approximate location and didn't pinpoint exactly where the gorillas were. "We have no idea where they are. It's a huge area to try and find them," Damian explained.
Once in Gabon, the couple made their way to Bateke Plateau National Park, where the animals were. Damian and Victoria patiently traveled down the river, looking for any signs of Ima and Djalta. But hour after hour, they had no success. What could the travelers do?
Thinking Outside the Box
Even with the guidance from the GPS tracker, Victoria and Damian couldn't seem to find Aspinall's old friends. The locater gave too large of a zone where Djalta and Ima could be, and the surrounding nature was thick with greenery and difficult to see through.
Plus, Damian knew they had to be careful as to how they came across the gorillas. The explorers had to be slow and cautious to make sure not to scare the animals who had grown used to living largely undisturbed in the wild. Luckily, they came prepared with the perfect solution: drones.
It wasn't Damian's first rodeo. The animal-lover had tracked down animals before and knew to bring along a high-tech (and quiet) drone in case searching by boat and foot didn't bring any luck. So after trying to find Djalta and Ima the old-fashioned way, the crew pulled out the technology.
"Eventually, we had to use the drones," Damian recalled. The gadget was connected to his smartphone, so Aspinall could follow along and search for his old pals on the small screen. "It wasn't long before the drones found the gorillas on the edge of the Mpassa River," he said.
The Gorillas Were Curious
It wasn't long before one of the two gorillas noticed the strange thing flying over their heads. And whichever one of them it was - Djalta or Ima - came out from all of the bushy greenery and followed the drone with his eyes. Did the animal look scared or threatened?
Fortunately, for now, the gorilla didn't seem scared. In fact, he mostly looked confused and curious. Things were finally off to a good start. After locating Ima and Djalta, Victoria and Damian set off to find them in person. They hoped things would go well.
After locating Djalta and Ima through the drone, the explorers quickly made their way back to their little boat. The gorillas' location was actually pretty ideal; since they were at the edge of the Mpassa River, it wouldn't prove too difficult to get to them.
But that was now the least of the couple's worries. The animals had been located, and Damian and Victoria were on their way to them. But what would happen once the lovebirds actually arrived? It was still possible that Djalta and Ima could react aggressively to the humans.
Lots of Conerns
It had been around fourteen years since Damian had last seen his old friends. Would they remember him? And even if they did, would Ima and Djalta be interested in socializing with him like in the good ol' days? The animals had been out in the wild for quite some time now.
And the truth was, Damian was the least of their worries. Sure, the animals hadn't interacted with humans in quite some time, but they would probably remember Aspinall. It was Victoria's presence that really concerned the crew. There was no way to know how Ima and Djalta would react to a stranger.
The Gorillas Noticed Them
After some time on the boat, Damian and Victoria finally arrived at the river bank where the drone found the two animals. To eliminate as many distractors and possible threats as possible, the couple took the drone down so that it was just them and the gorillas.
It didn't take long for Djalta and Ima to notice the group of humans approaching them. Victoria and Damian stayed as quiet as possible so as not to provoke the gorillas or make them think there was any sort of threat happening. What happened soon after surprised them all.
Damian was beyond excited to finally see his good friends face-to-face. He naturally wanted to hug them and play with them right away, but Aspinall knew that would be a grave mistake. Instead, the animal-lover approached Ima and Djalta slowly, slowly.
So Damian crept off the boat where Victoria still sat and waded into the river. It was better to leave the boat a bit further from the land so that Ima and Djalta wouldn't get scared from the motor's noise. Staying quiet and gentle, Aspinall inched his way towards land.
Taking a Seat
"I decided to gently ease my way," Damian explained. "I didn't want to frighten them, and I wanted to make sure they were relaxed." And it looked like he did just that. While neither of the gorillas approached Aspinall right away, they weren't threatened by him, either.
Damian gently sat on the ground close by. He patiently waited as Djalta and Ima processed what was happening. It was clear that the gorillas remembered this human, and their initial reaction was to stick around and figure out what he wanted. Aspinall hoped things would stay calm.
And while Damian was happy to see his old friends remembered him, he also wanted them to welcome his wife. "It would be lovely for them to accept Victoria," Aspinall said. "I think it will depend very much on them seeing Victoria's part of my group."
Once it seemed secure, Victoria made her way towards the gorillas. "Okay, now jump in," Damian instructed her. "I was looking for a sign that would reassure me that they were not going to be hostile or aggressive," he added. The pair held their breath, awaiting that sign.
A Gurgling Sound
Victoria got off the boat and stood in the water for a few minutes, waiting for a signal that it was safe to approach land. And then Damian heard it: a gurgle from one of the two gorillas. And according to him, it was a friendly sound. "So he's just given me a little gurgle," Aspinall said.
"It's his first sign that he's being friendly," he continued. "Do you want to say hello to Victoria?" Damian asked the gorillas before telling Victoria to start making her way onto the land. The moment of truth had finally arrived: it was time to see if Ima and Djalta accepted her.
Slowly, Slowly Again
Just as Damian had done before, Victoria gently inched closer. "So I'm trying to get Victoria just a little bit closer to him so he can see her, and I'm hoping that he'll accept that she's part of my group and not be threatened by her," Damian detailed at the time.
Finally, Victoria made her way to where Damian sat and slowly sat down right next to him. The couple hoped that Ima and Djalta understood that they were there together and, therefore, Mrs. Aspinall was not a threat. Then, one of the male gorillas came closer to Victoria and started smelling and observing her.
After approaching Victoria, it seemed that the gorilla made up his mind: she was safe to interact with. And then, another friendly sound came out of his mouth. "He just vocalized to Victoria, now. A very friendly gurgle. So I think he's accepted her," Aspinall proudly declared.
While it seemed that Ima and Djalta both remembered who Damian was, and they were not threatened by Victoria's presence, the cautious couple still took things slowly. That first day, there were no hugs or much affection shown to the animals. But the journey wasn't finished...
They Came Back
After a cautious reunion, Damian and Victoria called it a day and went back to their sleeping grounds. But the adventure continued the very next day. The pair boarded their little boat once more and returned to the same place where they met Ima and Djalta less than 24 hours before.
"The next morning, we were so excited to come back and see our friends," Damian recalled. "Very soon, we realized that something special was going to happen." Djalta and Ima were in the same place where the couple had encountered them the day before. Only this time, it didn't take long for them to get comfortable.
Everybody - humans and animals alike - had been quite cautious the day before during the initial reunion. But it seemed that having a night to review their interactions with Damian and Victoria left the gorillas feeling much more comfortable. And a special bond quickly formed.
"Ima was immediately captivated by Victoria," Damian said. "He's looking at you so sweetly," he told his wife. Ima approached Victoria and, using some friendly gurgles, asked her to hug him. And then, the act of affection was returned as he let Victoria lay back on him.
"I Think I've Lost My Wife"
So things hadn't gone exactly how Damian imagined them... they went even better! Ima and Djalta both remembered their old friend who had helped raise them all of those years. And they had so much love for him that it spilled into loving and accepting his companion, too.
In fact, Ima seemed much more interested in bonding with Victoria than with Damian! "I think I've lost my wife," Aspinall jokingly remarked as he watched the two new friends cuddle on the river bank. And then things took a surprising (and adorable) turn.
Ima Took Her Hat
While sitting against Ima and cuddling, Victoria removed her hat. And the small act didn't go unnoticed by the intelligent animal. Just a few minutes later, the friendly gorilla took the hat from Mrs. Aspinall. What he did next surprised everyone present.
Ima walked a few feet away from Damian and Victoria before carefully placing the hat on his head, just as he saw the couple do with their hats. Perhaps Ima noticed that both of the humans wore hats and wanted to be a part of the crew, or maybe he just wanted to play around.
Love at Second Sight
Whatever the reason for the hat borrowing, Ima soon brought it back to its rightful owner. The gorilla and Victoria sat together once more, and Victoria even placed her hat back on Ima's head, showing him approval and love for his actions. "He's smitten," Damian commented.
"Watching Ima and Victoria was something incredibly beautiful," Aspinall said. "These beautiful animals are so noble, so gentle. Just shows, one must never underestimate how extraordinarily beautiful these gorillas are," he added. We couldn't agree more!
An Animal in Danger
Damian was ecstatic to have found his old friends and over-the-moon at how Ima bonded with Victoria. The gorillas accepted his wife just as he hoped. But sadly, animals like Djata and Ima are in danger. The population of western lowland gorillas has been declining throughout the years.
Hunting and deforestation are both factors that have led to the animals' decrease in population. Damian and Victoria, along with all of those at the Aspinall Foundation, are hoping to change that. We can't help but smile at the thought of more Ima's and Djata's making their way around the world.