Howletts began when the little collection moved out to the country home that Aspinall bought in 1957. The mansion at the centre of the estate was practically derelict, but the grounds seemed exactly right for his purpose - to provide the right home for the animals he thought of as friends. The zoo would not open to the public for almost two decades when bankruptcy forced the move; but in that time an extraordinary thing had happened at Howletts: the ‘zoo’ had been reinvested.
One essential thing sets Howletts (and by association, Port Lympne) apart from every other zoo. It is the simple maxim that keepers are encouraged to develop close emotional bonds with their animals. That bond tends to involve playing with the animals, as well as cleaning up after them and feeding them. In this respect Aspinall is either a pioneer, a prophet, or a pariah, depending upon your point of view. Certainly other zoos and many lofty voices have reacted sternly against this idea. After all, it runs counter to the most modem dictums in zoo keeping - that animals are essentially wild, and that they need to develop a distance between themselves and human beings. Yet Aspinall dares to challenge this most closely held dogma with almost religious fervour. He rough-and-tumbles regularly with tigers and gorillas, often on a Sunday when visitors can watch, and his family join in with, it seems, equal enthusiasm. The zoo guide shows his wife Sally in with the tigers, and describes how their youngest son Bassa was ‘shoved in with adult gorillas when he was only six months old’. This is more than simply a technique in animal husbandry: it is a doctrine that places animals and man on the same level and urges us to love and understand animals in the same way as we do each other, through close physical contact, communication, and respect.
Treating animals as friends manifests itself particularly in the way that animals are fed at Howletts. Most zoos settle upon a scientifically formulated diet for each species - often a dull form of ‘cattle cake’. Aspinall believes in feeding with variety and quality. The gorillas at Howletts have a diet that consists of more than 150 different things, including the freshest and finest tropical fruits, mangoes, paw paws, celery, strawberries, sugar cane, even roast pork; and what is true for the gorillas is equally true elsewhere - the elephants receive maize, herbal hay, mangold, lucerne, and a whole variety of fruits and vegetables.
Good or bad, right or wrong, one thing is certain about the Aspinall approach: it seems to work. Even his critics will admit that the animals at Howletts breed well, perhaps better than any other zoo. Ninety percent of the species kept here breed successfully; and while many zoos will claim only to keep animals that they confidently expect to breed, at Howletts you can believe it. Many of the animals here are rare both in the wild and within zoos, and yet they breed; bongos, for example, are elusive, lovely, striped forest antelopes, and have bred here; (Howletts founded the only captive herd in the world, now kept at Port Lympne). Howletts was the first zoo in the world to breed the secretive honey badger, and was the first British zoo to breed clouded leopards, Siberian tigers, African elephants, Przewalski’s horse, fishing cats, snow leopards, Javan brown langurs, and chousingha (little four-homed antelope). Done langurs from Cambodia and Vietnam, one of the most beautiful of all monkeys, with white and yellow faces, were almost wiped off the planet in a war they had no part in. Nowadays you will hardly ever see them, but Howletts keeps and breeds them.
Every enclosure, and every group of animals at Howletts is so special, and so out of the ordinary, that if you were to visit and see only one species each time it should be reward enough. The park itself is also a delight. It has been a park since the time of Henry VIII, and many of the great trees are still believed to date back this far. Prominent among them is the ‘Howletts chestnut’, probably one of the oldest in Britain, and the path around the zoo takes in a woodland walk beneath some quite magnificent cedars, oaks, sweet chestnut and beech. Many ancient trees came down on the night of the hurricane in 1987, including two mighty Huntingdon elms, and the zoo closed for several months as repairs to enclosures were undertaken. Now the gardeners are busy replanting, and although our generation will not see Howletts again as it was, perhaps our great-grandchildren will.
Tigers and their prey species are a dominant theme at Howletts. Tigers were Aspinall’s first love among the animal kingdom, and this zoo breeds more tigers than any other zoo in the world, around twenty a year. In true Aspinall fashion no animal will ever be ‘put down’ as surplus to requirements, so the tiger population here is burgeoning. Perhaps this is a problem because the tiger compounds are starting to look rather full, and many will soon be due for rebuilding. The traditional prey species of the tigers at Howletts include blackbuck, chousingha, sambar deer, nilghai (the largest Asian antelope), axis deer (beautiful, lightly spotted deer), water buffalo, and hog deer (which are tiny by comparison with the rest). Many of these animals inhabit the walk-through deer park, and others require patience to spot in the huge wooded paddocks in which they roam.
There are ten African elephants at Howletts at present, including one adult bull and an infant bull. They look magnificent, and are usually seen browsing their way through a mountain of branches. For several years they occupied a single, long concrete stockade, fenced with railway girders. This accommodation, although satisfactory, never seemed quite sufficient, especially as the group of elephants grew. Negotiations were held with a neighbouring landowner, and finally an agreement was struck for the zoo to buy twelve additional acres of an adjoining orchard. In 1991 the elephants were introduced into the first few acres -the sand paddock -a circular, sandy field which at a stroke more than quadrupled their space. But more is to come. Fencing work on the long, sloping orchard should be complete in 1992, and the elephants are then to be admitted. Quite how long it will take them to dispose of all the trees (and there are dozens) is anybody’s guess. But it should be a sight worth seeing.
Apart from the tigers there are a great number of cats at Howletts, but do not expect to see many of them. Their enclosures, in general, do not invite close inspection; the barriers are well back, and most, like the clouded leopard, the marbled cat, the ocelot, and the rusty spotted cat from Sri Lanka are either nocturnal, or highly secretive, or both, and Aspinall’s zoos do not oblige many creatures to display themselves unless they particularly chose to do so. Visit early in the morning, or late into the evening, however, and be patient, and you may be rewarded; the experience should mean n@ ore than any number of cats seen elsewhere behind glass on a tiled floor.
Primates, including the famous Howletts gorillas, are the crowning glory of this zoo. Siamangs are the largest of the gibbons; they are black and bushy, and have balloon-like inflatable necks that amplify their whooping calls so that their duets can be heard not just around the zoo, but all around Bekesbourne as well. They are master acrobats, and no other British zoo gives them such opportunity to show it, with great, tall, intensively roped cages. There are similar homes for capuchins, and few visitors will fail to be moved by the family groups of three of the rarest monkeys in the world, the Done langur, the Javan brown langur, and the banded langur. They are all leaf-eating monkeys, and none have been well served by zoos in the past. If Howletts succeeds with just one of these most precious creatures, then future generations will have much to thank them for.
It would take more space than is available here to describe the full riches of Howletts. It is the Louvre of zoos. The late Dian Fossey, famous for her pioneering work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, hated all zoos with a passion; but she made an exception for Howletts when she visited the zoo in 1984. What convinced her was the colony of gorillas. Many other zoologists also consider what she saw at Howletts to be the single best zoo’exhibit’ of any kind anywhere in the world. What is special about Aspinall’s gorillas at Howletts is the sheer nerve of it. At present there are thirty five gorillas in the 10,000 square yard gorillarium. The numbers have been as high as forty, but five gorillas departed to Port Lympne in 1991. At the time of writing another baby is expected soon, but then gorilla births are practically routine here now, and all but ten of the gorillas were born at Howletts. They are formed into three social groups (a fourth is planned), each with a huge silver back male. Djoum, the largest of Aspinall’s gorillas, came to Howletts as a starving infant in 1970. Today he weighs over 450 Ibs (33 stone), and has fathered four youngsters. John Aspinall calls Djoum (who is now at Port Lympne Zoo) one of the ‘greatest successes of his life’, and counts him as one of his closest friends; and despite their size, their enormous latent power and the mistaken reputation of the gorilla for brute savagery, there are few visitors who could stand and watch the gorillas playing in the great playground at Howletts who would not wish to have one as a friend as well.
The gorillarium, consists simply of two huge wire cages, and a row of bedrooms connected by overhead tunnels. The complex is reported to have cost only £20,000 to build (in the 1960’s), a fraction of the cost of many grossly more elaborate, but far less suitable gorilla houses elsewhere in the country. The ceiling of the cages is rimmed with struts, along which the apes can swing, and hung with ropes and playthings. The floor is more than four feet deep with oat straw, which is changed only every two to three years. The idea horrifies many zoo directors who favour white tile and concrete, and despite the example of Howletts, so many zoo gorillas are still kept in what look like mortuaries. The straw serves several functions. As it slowly rots down it generates warmth, right through the year; it mimics the soft forest floor that gorillas would find in their wild habitat, protecting them in their boisterous play; and it gives them the opportunity to forage all through the day for the fruit and nuts which the keepers scatter daily, and for the grubs and beetles that find a natural home in the straw. This means that the gorillas here never seem bored; as you walk into the kitchen garden and first encounter the gorillas, the impression is one of great activity, movement, and play. The effect is magnetic, and visitors find themselves rooted here, spellbound by the sight of so many great apes at play.
In less than three decades this small zoo near Canterbury has entirely raised the horizons of zoo keeping. There are places where the zoo is beginning to show its age, but this is trivial when you consider the achievements that have been made, and still are being made. Aspinall is still treated as something of an interloper by many zoo people, resented perhaps for his idiosyncratic ideas, for his lack of professional training, and for the way he openly shuns organisations like the National Federation of Zoological Gardens, to which most other Good Zoos in this guide (apart of course from Port Lympne) belong. In time, perhaps, Howletts will have to face up to the role it must play in the wider community of zoos; but other zoos too will need to watch Howletts - it is an ideas factory that is setting the standards that they will have to follow sooner or later. In the end, that may prove to be the most valuable legacy of this zoo.