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Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Zoo keeper Aspinall dies
John Aspinall
Zoo keeper John Aspinall's methods were controversial
Millionaire animal park owner John Aspinall has died aged 74 after a three-year battle against cancer.

He is survived by his wife Sarah, two sons Damian and Bassa, daughter Amanda and two stepsons Jason and Amos Courage.

John Aspinall's two great loves were wild animals and gambling. Fiercely critical of the human race, much of which he dismissed as a 'biomass', he used his betting profits to finance his zoos and protect endangered species.

Born in 1926 the son of an Army officer, John Aspinall started gambling while a student at Oxford University. During the 1950s he ran an constantly-moving illegal gambling club mainly for his friends.

In 1956 a successful betting coup allowed him to buy Howlett's, his Georgian mansion in Kent and, eventually, the home of the first of his two zoos.

John Aspinall with tiger
John Aspinall: A life-long passion about animals
Following the granting of his gaming licence, John Aspinall's exclusive casinos attracted a rich and titled clientele. Members included the financier Sir James Goldsmith and Lord Lucan, who allegedly lost a fortune at Aspinall's Clermont Club.

Indeed, following Lucan's disappearance in the wake of the murder of his nanny in 1974, John Aspinall was believed by some to have helped to spirit the peer into exile.

For his part, Aspinall said that he would have done anything to help his friend but denied having met him following the murder. The episode merely added to the glamour which surrounded him.

The 1970s saw the opening, not only of Howlett's Zoo, but also of Port Lympne. His animals were kept in conditions as natural a possible and fed on the finest foods from around the world.

But, for a time, Aspinall's sterling work for animals was undermined by a series of accidents. Three keepers were mauled to death by tigers on separate occasions and Howlett's was temporarily closed.

Zulu tribe member

Throughout, John Aspinall stood by his conviction that human contact with his animals was vital to their welfare. As bad as they were, he said, all human losses just had to be accepted.

As much at home in Africa as in Britain, he was an honorary member of the Zulu tribe, a close friend of the Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and a committed proponent of an independent Zulu nation.

John Aspinall was an eccentric. A fierce critic of European federalism, he stood for his friend James Goldsmith's Referendum Party at the 1997 British General Election.

His right-wing views on race and overpopulation were, for some, hard to stomach. But few doubt the sincerity of the love which this maverick environmentalist had for both the planet and its animals.

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