Sunday, May 23, 2010

Loving 5-year Reunion of Man, Gorilla by Mike Celizic- TODAY

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Two years ago, a lion’s loving reunion in the African wild with the two men who had raised him in London was a YouTube sensation. Now there’s a new animal star in town, and his name is Kwibi the gorilla.

You may have seen the video by now. A tall and aristocratic-looking Englishman rides a boat down a river in the African jungle hoping to find the gorilla he left there five years earlier.

In a deep voice, the man calls out, “C’mon! C’mon!” Finally, he sees his old friend on the riverbank. The man clambers out of the boat and up the bank. He sits in the undergrowth and Kwibi the gorilla greets him gently with caresses, sniffs, nose-rubs and hugs. The two gurgle at one another as the man chews on a leaf and then gives it to the gorilla.

Much as the “hugging” lion called Christian did, Kwibi the gorilla introduces his friend to his wives and children. When the man finally leaves, Kwibi follows his boat down the river and sleeps across from the man’s camp. In the morning, Kwibi is still there.

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Friday morning, Damian Aspinall, the man in the video, came to New York to tell TODAY’s Matt Lauer the back story behind the wildly popular video.

A gorilla’s gurgle
The first thing Lauer asked was whether Aspinall was scared at all. After all, gorillas are wary of humans, enormously powerful, and potentially dangerous.

And even though Aspinall had raised Kwibi from infancy at his zoo in the south of England, for the past five years the 10-year-old male had been living in the wild in a jungle preserve in Gabon. There was no guarantee Kwibi would remember Aspinall or, if he did, welcome him into his territory.

“I wasn’t 100 percent sure. You never know. He is a wild animal now,” Aspinall said. “But deep inside you believe that things will be OK.”

When he heard Kwibe the gorilla’s distinctive love gurgle, Damian Aspinall knew their reunion would be a happy one.

Aspinall knew that for sure when he heard a certain sound that Kwibi made.

“The moment I heard the gurgle — gorillas have a gurgle, and it’s a very deep love gurgle — I knew that I’d be OK,” Aspinall recalled. “Right at that moment, everything stopped. The sounds of the forest stopped and the sounds of the river stopped, and I was just captivated in that moment. He looked in my eyes with such intensity and such love.”

But the danger wasn’t over. There was still the chance that Kwibi’s wives would not be as welcoming to this total stranger.

“I was far more worried that one of the wives would be protective of Kwibi,” Aspinall admitted.

Unconventional upbringing
Lauer couldn’t help but wonder what a gorilla smells like after five years without a shower and shampoo and guessed that it must be ripe.

“I love the smell of a gorilla,” Aspinall said. “It never bothers me.”

It’s a smell he grew up with on his father’s estate in Kent in the south of England.

The animals that roamed young Damian Aspinall’s estate gave him the love he didn’t receive from his parents.

By all accounts, Damian Aspinall did not have the perfect set of doting parents. His father, John Aspinall, divorced his mother when Damian was 6 and told the boy never to have anything to do with her. John Aspinall determined early on that Damian, the eldest of his three children, was thick-headed and not worth his attention. After shipping the lad off to boarding school, the father had little to do with Damian until he grew up and made his first million pounds, with no help from the family fortune.

Damian got the emotional support he didn’t get from his parents from the animals that lived on the estate. The property is now a zoo, but when Aspinall was a child, wild and sometimes dangerous creatures roamed the house and the grounds freely.

“When I was a little boy, all the animals lived in the house with us,” he told Lauer. “I’d open my bedroom door, and tigers and gorillas and wolves would all jump on the bed.”

When he was an infant, Aspinall’s father put him in the hands of a female gorilla. The gorilla inspected him and showed off the new member of the family. As an adult, Aspinall has done the same with his own three daughters.

A multimillionaire who could be the real-life version of the “world’s most interesting man” of the Dos Equis beer ads, Aspinall runs the conservation organization his father started, the Aspinall Foundation, to breed gorillas and return them to the wild. He runs two wild animal parks in Kent, Howletts and Port Lympne, where 120 gorillas have been born and 77 of the great apes now live. In all, the foundation has returned 51 gorillas to protected areas of the African jungle.

But Kwibi was special, as anyone who has watched the reunion video can attest.

Aspinall has hopes that he’ll see Kwibi again.

“I go to Gabon three or four times a year, so I’m always hopeful I can see him. But it’s no different than if you go to see a friend of yours in another country, and you meet and you have a reunion, and then you go on your separate lives again,” he said.

A responsibilty to the Earth
Lauer asked if it’s not dangerous for Kwibi to be so friendly to humans, not all of whom are as nice to gorillas as Aspinall is. Aspinall said that’s not a problem.

“He’s familiar with me but not familiar with other human beings, which is the way it should be,” the conservationist explained.

The reunion took place two years ago and was shown on a British television show. Aspinall hopes that it inspires people to become involved in conservation efforts.

“I hope that when people see this they’ll realize that animals deserve their chance, and it just shows how gentle gorillas can be,” Aspinall said. “I think we have a responsibility to this earth, and I think we as a species can do so much more for this planet. I believe that and we’re trying to do a little bit of that.”

For more information about the Aspinall Foundation, click here. And to learn more about the foundation’s online animal adoption program, click here.