The cool, rainy English countryside near Canterbury feels about as far away as you can get from the hot jungles of West Africa. But it is here on the grounds of what used to be his father's estate that English entrepreneur and conservationist Damian Aspinall runs the largest captive gorilla preserve in the world.
"What I think is important is that the world understands that these animals are not these ferocious beasts," Aspinall said. "I mean, they're incredibly gentle and incredibly honest and incredibly noble."
Aspinall's father John, a legendary English conservationist and socialite, started Howlett's Zoo as a private reserve in the 1960s. Since then, it's been something of a family tradition that the Aspinalls meet and interact with the gorillas, literally from birth.
Damian did it as a child, events that his father caught on hours of home video. In the early '90s, Aspinall did the same for his first two daughters from his first marriage, Clary and Tansy. Tansy was just 18 months old when she entered the gorillas' cage. With her father close by, the gorillas hugged her and even let her ride on their backs.
"It was wonderful," he said. "They picked her up and they patted her back and they could see that she couldn't support her head, so they supported her head. Incredibly gentle, incredibly gentle."
Now, Aspinall is considering doing the same with his newly born daughter Freya, the daughter of his girlfriend, a TV-host named Donna Air. The news has sparked a storm in the British and American media.
"It's not a big deal for me. That's why the sort of fuss that this has created is slightly bemusing because it's happened here for 40 years," he said. "It's a completely natural organic thing for me to do. I take great joy when one, one of the gorillas here has a baby. They would take great joy I'm sure in seeing that I've had a baby."
At Howlett's, Aspinall breeds gorillas and releases them back into the wild. Aspinall, Air and his two daughters sent seven young gorillas to Gabon, which is located on the edge of the Congo basin, last year.
It was a tearful farewell. For them, the gorillas are not just animals to be saved, they're family — a phenomenon dating back to the years when Aspinall was growing up here.
"You know, most children have memories of, I don't know, playing soccer on the soccer team," he said. "My memories were playing with gorillas and tigers and wolves. It was a wonderful childhood really.
I said, "I've read the stories of your father walking his puma in, in downtown London."
"True, true, true story," Aspinall said.
Most zoos discourage close contact between the keepers and the animals. The rationale is: the less contact, the more like real conditions in the wild. But at Howlett's, the philosophy is the complete opposite. The staff build friendships with the animals, although Aspinall takes it to a unique level.
During our trip to Howlett's we watched as Aspinall spent an hour inside the gorillas' cage. The gorillas are more comfortable with Aspinall than any of the keepers — he's known most of them since birth — and he is very much at home with them.
An adolescent rode on his back. He held hands with a young female gorilla. But he spent most of his time with his closest friend among the gorillas, a 16-year-old silverback, the dominant male in the group, named "Kifu.'"p>
The 500-pound Kifu treated Aspinall gently most of the time, reaching into his pockets to see if he had any more snacks. But he also clamped his jaws around Aspinall's shoulder. It's normal gorilla horseplay, which Aspinall likes to call "love bites."
"Kifu plays very gently with me," he said. Then he added, laughing, "He knows I'm not after his women."
It is Sounda, a female and mother of two, who will hold his baby daughter Freya. The keepers say she is the best mother in the zoo.
Aspinall agrees, "Sounda is the gentlest of gorillas and would never, never harm any, any of my children." Gorillas do not, by their nature, attack humans. But in the complex gorilla world, there is enormous potential for misunderstanding between man and animal, something we discovered very quickly here.
As our cameraman filmed through the bars, one female gorilla approached quietly and then grabbed keeper Steve Perry by the neck. The gorillas erupted in a frenzy. Another keeper had to drag Perry away.
"I got too close because there was food on the scene," said Perry. "Had there been no food there probably wouldn't have been an issue there really."
Aspinall himself was attacked a few years ago, when another silverback thought he might be a competitor for the affections of a gorilla female. For his baby daughter, he and his girlfriend, Donna Air, consider the risk to be small.
"Any mother is always apprehensive, as you can imagine, but she's fully supportive of me," he said. "She's seen me in with the gorillas a hundred times. It's just I have complete faith and trust, as, as, you know, I love these gorillas and they love me."
For more information about Howlett's, its charity and what it does to fight the declining gorilla population, go to www.howletts.com.