When Damian Aspinall posted to the Internet a decades-old home video of daughter Tansy, then 18 months old, playing with gorillas, he intended to shine a spotlight on the gorillas as gentle animals in need of help from humans.
Instead, the video put the spotlight on him as a parent and whether he was irresponsible for sending Tansy, now 22, inside a cage at Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, England, with 300-pound gorillas.
“I can see what the perception is here but the reality is that I was brought up with gorillas, my family had been brought up with gorillas and if you’re brought up with gorillas and part of the family group, it’s not risky at all,” Aspinall, a conservationist, said today on “Good Morning America” in his first comments since the backlash from the video first emerged.
“I can understand how some people would find that hard to believe but it just isn’t,” he said. ”These animals are very, very gentle animals.”
The British-born Aspinall runs an eponymous foundation that promotes wildlife conservation and is the No. 1 breeder of gorillas in captivity in the world. The goal of Aspinall’s charity, the Aspinall Foundation, is to reintroduce captive gorillas back into the wild in Africa and spread a positive message about the animals, his original intention with the video.
“The whole point of this is so that people can see that and if people want to help gorillas, this is a great opportunity to get behind the foundation,” he said. “If anyone is out there, listening to this and wants to help the work, we need money to help these animals and help protect the wilderness that mankind is destroying.”
The little girl at the center of the video, Aspinall’s daughter, Tansy, says the controversy is overblown and that her dad would never put her in danger.
“I don’t remember specifically that video but I definitely remember going in with the animals and just loving being around them. It was playing with another brother or sister, really,” Tansy said on “GMA.” “On the weekends we would go in with them and play with them and it’d be a real highlight of the weekend for us.
“I think the most important thing about gorillas to remember is, exactly like humans, there’s some which are much more kind and gentle than others, which is the one that we [would] go in with,” she said. “My dad would never put me in with an overly aggressive gorilla, ever.”
Damian Aspinall’s father, John, an English conservationist and socialite, started Howletts Zoo, where Aspinall now runs his foundation, near Canterbury, England, as a private reserve in the 1960s. In a 2003 profile by ABC News, the family described it as somewhat of a tradition for family member to meet and interact with the gorillas, literally from birth.
Aspinall, who also has an 8-year-old daughter, says he would encourage his younger daughter to interact the same way with gorillas now if society allowed.
“I would have no hesitation at all,” he said. “It’s just the political landscape has changed such and health and safety laws have changed such for the last 10 to 15 years that make it very, very difficult. But [if] it was up to me, I wouldn’t hesitate at all.”