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Lesson 6

In 1984 Aspinall, in casino partnership with Jimmy Goldsmith, floated their new casino, aspinall’s Curzon, on the stock market.  The City went mad to buy the shares.  On the plus side, the company could show an annual profit of £ 8m.  And as its principal asset it had Aspinall’s reputation and skill … But still … it was only a casino, depending for its profits on mug punters continuing to patronize it in sufficient numbers, not a ‘real’ business like manufacturing.  The wild over-subscription for its shares showed that the investment community liked to gamble just as much as the players round the green baize.  Aspinall’s holding, from an original investment of £ 10,000, was valued at £ 30m.

            Aspinall has never been secretive about his profits, but he is not a man who wanted to make money for its own sake.  No, he has another passion.  Wild animals.
            His gaming clubs have financed his two private zoos, at Howletts and close by at Port Lympne, in Kent.  Their upkeep costs him £ 75,000 a year.  The zoos are not amateur little parks: Aspinall maintains some 625 wild animals, and makes a specialty of      breeding Siberian tigers.  When he went down in the stock market crash of 73, he sold his valuable possessions, his paintings, his furniture, his ‘loot ’ from the years of gaming piracy, as he puts it.  but he hung on to the animals, just managed to hang on.
            The zoos are expensive.  For one thing, they are designed to give the animals the best possible conditions in their captivity.  For another. Aspinall likes to feed his animals (like his clients) only the best.  Why should they be fed inferior food?  They are as important to him, more important, than any human beings.  Aspinall has lost three keepers over the years, two killed by a tiger, one by an elephant and has himself taken incredible risks.

  He likes to go into the tiger compound or the gorilla cages, and allow the animals to play with him.  he has a close physical relationship with his animals.  Once in the early days he was almost killed by bears crushed and mauled, he had to be dragged out of the cage.  After the ordeal he sobbed for an hour, clasping the keeper’s hands.  He could hardly believe it, that when it mattered most, luck had been on his side.  He detests the English upper class’s pursuit of hunting, seeing it as partly responsible for their terminal decline.  His idea of play, as shown in this graphic account from a magazine article by Charles MacLean, is quite different.
            ‘On the floor of the Grillroom he sits like a Buddha in the straw and waits for one of them to make the first move.  All seven around the cage have displayed distant interest; if they want to approach, they’ £ do it in their own time.  There is no question of coercion you can’t whistle a gorilla like you can a dog.  Unexpectedly a series of somersaults lands the youngest of the grouping his lap.  It throws a long dark arm about his neck and greets him with affectionate gutturals.  Moving on to all fours he returns the compliment.  At the other end of the enclosure two fully grown females confer in a corner, massive heads lowered together, small eyes evoking the pathos of intelligence imprisoned by musculature.  They feign indifference but keep him under observation, casting sidelong glances, curious and jealous.

            ‘Without warning the larger of the two suddenly breaks into a chest-thumping charge.  He half turns to meet her and receives two heavy blows to the shoulder as she rushes past, deliberately not looking at him.  it ’s a reproachful reminder, an invitation to come-and-play-with-me.  Before he is fully recovered she’s back, looking for action.  They roll together, spar and wrestle; she sits on his back and beats her sides; he tickles her under the arms, setting off a reaction of deep reverberative laughter.  Others join in the casino games  they come and go, always recalcitrant, sometimes aloof because of rivalries.  He calls them by name, talks to them in their language, aping their vocalizations, a blond gorilla among blacks.  But the true medium of their conversation is physical contact.  At the end he stands alone, scratched and bruised, rugger shirt in tatters, missing a sizeable tuft of hair and a trouser-leg, but delighted with himself, his gorillas, the whole display.  Beyond the bars of the cage a manservant materializes with a change of clothes, carefully laid across his black-coated arm.’
            There have been funny stories: on one occasion a keeper whom he had sacked for negligence let the pair of Himalayan bears loose; they were tempted into drinking a bucket each of green chartreuse, 60 degrees proof; when they fell asleep, they were carried back on stretchers, and slept for three days.  Aspinall likes animals around the house.  His first tiger cub, Tara, bought for £ 200 in a pet shop near the Regent ’s Park zoo, was reared in his bed for her first few months.  Tigers are misunderstood animals, he claims; they have a loyal and affectionate nature, and only two or three out of the 60 he has kept at Howletts have been tricky.
            All right for the family, but disconcerting to visitors.  Once when workmen came in to wallpaper the bedroom, and were warned by his mother-in-law ‘Whatever you do, don’t wake up the gorilla, ’ they thought she was joking.  When the gorilla peeped out from under the sheets, they fled.  Or the coalman, stalked by the tiger as he carried in sacks of coal, taking a breather in the cellar; he strikes a match to light a cigarette, and sees in the flame a Siberian tiger, squatting next to him.  Or Lady Diana Cooper refusing to remove her hat before a gorilla ‘ramble’ though the park; the gorilla snatched her hat off, to reveal… curlers.  When Tara died, killed by a male tiger, aspinall buried her next to his daughter who dies in infancy.  He also wrote a poem to Tara, the last verse of which runs:

I swear it, I swear it,
To expiate man’s basest crime
I shall increase your tribe to a thousand,
Then join you in the jungles of time.
            Aspinall believes he has ‘been successful poker glossary in bridging that great man-made divide that has separated us from our kindred for countless thousands of years … Many have feasted with kings, few with tigers … To those who say how dull must be the company of creatures that have no language or learning, I would answer that the most profound communications are often mute.’
            Other zoologists have saluted Aspinall’s dedication and originality.  But in this field, as in gambling, his idiosyncratic approach has aroused jealousy.  The very success of his zoos in encouraging breeding (which animals will only do it they feel content), in the upkeep and display of his animals, in the atmosphere of family freedom is taken, so he feels, by some other zoos as implicit criticism of their own activities.  He, after all, is only an amateur, a dilettante.  He felt particularly upset when the Smithsonian magazine was prevailed upon to reject an article about his zoos, simply because the writer, an expert in the field, turned in a rather flattering report.  In general, though, his work is more respected abroad than in England.
            His knack of handling people, he has said, especially rich and powerful people, has been transferred to handling wild animals.  It is dangerous, getting close to wild animals.  He thrives on all kinds of risk.  But he does not make a direct connexion between his love of gambling and his love of wild animals, except for the obvious fact that the former has enabled him to afford the latter.
            Ultimately, aspinall believes in some cloudy apocalyptic way in a vast reduction of the human species in the British Isles, and in the world, so as to make room for the animals, and atone for man’s sin of ‘sociocide’.  Some of us are now driven to believe, ’ he declared in a final credo in his book about his zoos, The Best of Friends (1979),   ‘that a demo-catastrophe will be an eco-bonanza.  In other words, population readjustment on a planetary scale from 4,000 million to something in the nature of 200 million would be the only possible solution for the survival of our own deception species and of the eco-system or systems that nurtured us.  The reduced figure would represent a human population approximately equivalent to that of Julius Caesar’s time, and may be too large for the earth to sustain in perpetuity.’

            In his despair over the survival of the animal species, aspinall has been driven to the horrible analogy of comparing wildlife workers with the Sondergryppen of Auschwitz, who knew the day they and their ward were to be executed and yet went on with their tasks… (He seems actually to approve of genocide if staged over a period of a few hundred years, his only regret being that a nuclear holocaust would annihilate merely some 200-300 million.)
            ‘The grand design of all wildlife workers must be to protect the threatened through this difficult time … No longer can it be said that peace, plenty and plurality are worthy ends… Homo Sapiens is an uncontrolled, cancerous growth … Unfortunately its efforts (medical research) to neutralize our time-honored, natural beneficial predators like bubonic bacillus, the anopheles mosquito and the typhoid bacterium have proved only to successful … The choice before us is a qualitative life for 200,000,000 humans in perpetuity in a partially restored paradise, or a quantitative countdown to Armageddon on a raped planet gutted of most of its resources.’
Will there ever be a shift in human opinion large enough to save the animal species?  Aspinall thinks not. ‘I think the odds are stacked against success; but I know of no other wager worth a bet.’  In late 1985 Aspinall suffered a minor stroke, which has not, he says, served to reduce his physical involvement with animals.  He faces death ‘in the jungles of time’ with equanimity, hoping but very much doubting that one of his three children may, perhaps, want to continue his self-appointed task

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