Howletts Wild Animal Park was set up as a private zoo in 1957 by John Aspinall near Canterbury, Kent. Aspinall was a gambler who held both eccentric and extremely right-wing views, and ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1997. He had a passion for wild animals, especially gorillas and tigers.
The animal collection on the Howlett estate was opened to the public in 1975. To give more room for the animals another estate at Port Lympne near Hythe, Kent was purchased in 1973, and opened to the public as Port Lympne Zoo in 1976.
Both zoos Aspinall founded are known for being unorthodox, on account of the encouragement of close personal relationships between staff and animals, for their breeding of rare and endangered species and for the number of keepers who have been killed by the animals they managed. Apart from this John Aspinall had his own ideas about how animals should be kept in captivity and how to contribute to wildlife conservation. These ideas differed from the mainstream zoo associations’ objectives, and therefore he refused to be part the organised zoo community.
Since 1984 Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks are managed by The Aspinall Foundation (TAF). A charity devoted to protecting rare and endangered animals and, where possible, returning them back to the wild.
John Aspinall died 29 June 2000, and with its founder gone much of what was considered arrogance has gone too. To date, Howletts and Port Lympne are collaborating with other zoos worldwide in good harmony. Nevertheless, some of the Aspinall Foundation achievements are still different and in advance of the rest of the zoo community. An excellent example is the purchase of over 400.000 hectares of forest in Gabon and the Republic of Congo for reintroduction of their captive bred Western lowland gorillas. Recently it has been announced that as part of this project — TAF’s flagship project — an entire gorilla family that all but one was born and raised in Kent, will be released into the wild early 2013, a world’s first.
The 90-acre (36 ha) park has a large collection of 53 western lowland gorillas and are home to the largest breeding family groups of gorillas in the world. The Zoo has UK’s largest herd of African elephants and offers the opportunity to walk alongside a free roaming family of lemurs in the Walk With Lemurs exhibit. And their Black Rhino breeding sanctuary is worth mentioning. Together with Lympne wild animal park they own an extraordinary collection of big and small cats. In Howletts you can find: Amur tiger, Snow leopard, Bengal tiger, Sumatran tiger, African wild cat, Clouded leopard, Pallas cat, Serval, Ocelot, Fishing cat, Siberian lynx.
There are currently 19 Clouded Leopards living at Howletts (website info 2010), and along with Port Lympne, they house 7 Fishing Cats and over 16 Ocelots. Ocelots bred at the parks have been sent to Mexico and in time their offspring should be eligible for introduction into wild habitat.
(Sources: website Howletts wild animal park; The IZES Guide to British Zoos & Aquariums by Tim Brown, 2009; Wikipedia)
A beautiful sunny day it was, when I finally visited John Aspinall’s estate where he first started keeping wild animals — for personal pleasure in the beginning, but financial matters forced him to turn the estate into a zoo. Ever since I read Aspinall’s biography I had been intrigued by the views of this eccentric owner of Howletts estate regarding human-animal interaction and keeping wild animals in captivity. This led for instance to the death of two zookeepers in 1980, killed by the same tigress and commemorated in the zoo with a plaque. I couldn’t wait and see with my own eyes how these views and its results had materialised in Howletts Wild Animal Park to date.
Just after the entrance, an information panel explains that the enclosures are designed with the animals in mind. Providing them with an environment that suits them best under captive conditions at Howletts as Zoo management sees it. As a result many of the enclosures provide enrichment imitating the animals’ original habitat. In contrast to what is currently often the case, meaning the bar-less enclosures in ‘Hagenbeck style’, most enclosures have wire mesh fences. In addition, there is sometimes a strip of grass of several meters between the fence and the public footpath (e.g. clouded leopard enclosure). And in order to create a quiet environment, vegetation is used along the fences to steer the public to a few special viewing areas. All this to avoid the animals are exposed too much during visiting hours. Although there are a few ‘modern’ bar-less enclosure (e.g. elephant, rhinoceros) many animals, especially the predators, can only be seen hindered by a wire mesh fence, or not seen at all. But in fact this is the Zoo’s philosophy, creating the best as possible conditions for the animals and let people enjoy it like it is.
Thus, no such thing as landscape immersion exhibits in Howletts, but large fenced off enclosures with many hideouts, especially for the predators. So, unfortunately I haven’t seen my favourite wild feline, the clouded leopard. Howletts seems to have the largest group of clouded leopards in captivity. But breeding these endangered cats is very difficult, because there is often much aggression between male and female in captivity. Therefore, exposure to the public is reduced to a minimum. And when they are on display in the enclosure closest to the public the jungle-like vegetation in the enclosure provides the animals ample opportunity to hide away.
Two of the large predator enclosures are those of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) and the Asian wild dog (Cuon alpinus) which you pass when walking in the direction of the rhinoceroses and elephants. Especially this part of the Zoo gives the impression of being an estate that was made fit for purpose to keep wild animals in captivity with some easy measures. Of course, that is not true but for instance the wild dog enclosures look as if the estate’s orchard was just fenced off. And the African elephant and black rhino enclosures could have been the former paddocks where the estate owner kept his cattle. Except for the rhino enclosure, which seems a bit dull, they all look great. The wild dog packs can roam around the area with its pear trees and undergrowth without even been noticed by the public.
In July 2007 the Zoo opened its second elephant grass paddock, extending the outdoor space to more than 3 hectares. The largest conventional elephant facility in the UK, and probably the second largest in Europe according to an information panel. Howletts houses the largest African elephant herd in the UK, which comprises 13 specimens including two calves born this year. They claim that Howletts have had more births than all other UK zoos combined. There is no additional enrichment provided other than the pool in the original paddock. The size of the enclosures allows for quite some trotting around, so probably there is no need for enrichment tools. Still, it is not real African nature of course. On the other hand, there is no need to cover large distances because feed is always close.
Retracing your footsteps back to the entrance brings you to the huge outdoor enclosure that is shared by the gelada baboons and black & white colobus monkeys. Both their indoor enclosures contain lots of behavioural enrichment items, above all lots of ropes, and the same counts for the outdoor enclosure. The ropes will not pay off for the gelada baboons I suppose because they are more ground dwellers and are not living in trees as far as I know. They made an enormous effort to make sure the monkeys will stay inside the enclosure, using lots and lots of electric wiring. This wiring even did put me off, to be honest. A moat probably would work quite as well and would have made the enclosure look a bit more natural.
Next, on the other side of the footpath two very large meadows with several kind of trees for Sumatran tigers can be found. Plenty enrichment is provided, such as rubber tyres and barrels, together with shelters and a small waterfall, and a stream with pool. Furthermore, both enclosures contain an amazingly high split level platform for the tigers to lie down, relax and observe the surroundings. A platform that high I never saw before in a zoo. As said before the separation of tigers and visitors is done by fences, which are covered with honeysuckle and other vegetation. This works well to hide the fence structures, but also to create an enclosed and secure environment for the tigers. Further down the footpath more tiger enclosures are located, for Sumatran as well as Amur tigers, which in principle have a similar lay-out.
The Pallas’ cats are also found in several enclosures on the premises. One of them consists of two adjacent constructions that are joint via a closable passage. It is wire mesh fences all over again, this time even the roof. The enclosures look very natural, with foliage, rocks, tree trunks and water. Howletts and Port Lympne are very successfully breeding Pallas’ cats or manuls, as they sometimes are called.
Howletts keeps more felid species, but not all of them as nicely as the tigers, clouded leopards and Pallas’ cats. Although the serval and lynx enclosures are really nice, the felids that are kept in the old enclosures along the leafy lane called the woodland walk seems to be less fortunate. The buildings and enclosures are old-fashioned and small, and this may be the oldest part of the Zoo. Nevertheless, it is a great environment with all the shade from the trees, the enclosures not very close to the footpath and quite some distance between the enclosures. But in my opinion the Indian desert cat, snow leopard, fishing cat, North Chines leopard and the ocelot as the odd representative of South America (all others are from the Asian continent) could do better. For instance their indoor enclosures are extremely small, and the fishing cat is without fishing opportunities (no stream or pond). At the end of the woodland walk the Iberian wolves are better off. They occupy a piece of forest that looks great with all its hiding places and opportunities to roam around.
The Aspinall foundation is actively involved in conservation efforts for different species. One of them is the Javan gibbon (Hylobates moloch), which status in the wild is considered endangered according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with a decreasing population trend. These primates are housed in gigantic cages with artificial and natural enrichment spread over the grounds. It is estimated that less than 2,000 specimens remain in the wild, and less than 50 Javan gibbons are held in captivity in ten zoos outside Java, their unique home range. These ten zoos are cooperating in a captive breeding programme, but only a few are breeding successfully. Howletts and Port Lympne together hold half of the world’s total captive population — currently housing 11 males and 13 females between the two parks. With 24 viable births since 1988, they are the world’s most successful breeder of this species.
The deer and antelope park, where Howletts keeps nilgai, black buck, hog deer, axis deer and Guinea fowl, is situated in the parkland that was established in the fifteen century when the Howletts mansion was owned by Sir Henry Palmer, one of Henry VIII’s admirals. Some of the trees may date back to this time, but although it is huge it still appears to me as a landscaped area, much different from the wild dog enclosure in their neglected orchard for instance.
The Javan langurs and lion-tailed macaques are housed in new open-topped enclosures which is an improvement of the old cage-like constructions, which could still be seen during my visit and were just recently abandoned. Regarding the lion-tailed macaques it must be mentioned that Howletts took on one of the larger groups of this species in zoos in an effort to support the captive breeding programme that now numbers some 600 individuals worldwide. This has been something of a global success story, as less than 25 years ago only around 100 specimens were recorded in captivity. In the wild an estimated 3,000 lion-tailed macaques remain.
Howletts and Port Lympne Zoo have the largest captive breeding collection in the world of Western lowland gorillas. This, and the way they house these magnificent creatures make a visit to Aspinall’s zoos extra special. The gorillas are kept in what looks like a huge cage with straw bedding, both in Howletts and Port Lympne, which I haven’t seen before. The philosophy is that the deep layer of straw, which is topped up with fresh straw daily recreates the leaf litter of the forest floor. It also supplies a source of heat in the winter, almost like under floor heating. Other ideas introduced to enhance gorilla welfare are enrichments such as a vast variety of cage furniture and puzzle feeders. More information about Aspinall’s philosophy on gorilla enrichment to enhance welfare can be found .
The Aspinall Foundation says gorilla enrichment to enhance welfare is basically simple. You have to create social groups. At Howletts they are fortunate enough to house the largest breeding collection of Western lowland gorillas in the world. This enables them to keep their gorillas in large age diverse groups. This is one of the simplest yet most effective ways of enriching the lives of Howletts’ gorillas, producing well-balanced individuals who exhibit species-specific behaviour.
In general this is a great zoo in my opinion, as they really try to create the best possible conditions for the animals, although the enclosures along the woodland walkway should be improved. They sometimes are combining species from different continents which could lead to confusion from educational point of view (e.g. Javan langur (Asia) next to capybara (South America)). But they should get the benefit of the doubt, as it probably is part of the process of improvement and change. Finally, I would like to mention two remarkable facts: this zoo has got no birds (which I don’t mind by the way), and the capybaras do not have access to water whatsoever.
John Aspinall’s legacy is not just the Aspinall Foundation, but his ideas about how humans may and can interact with wild animals have found fertile soil in his son Damian. In this video you see Damian Aspinall’s daughter Tansy 18 months old — about 20 years ago — playing with a gorilla:
ABCNews brought the news about the release of the video as follows:
A 300-pound gorilla picks up a toddler and carries her as if she’s one of its own in a 22-year-old video that is only now being seen by the masses.
The gorilla belongs to Damian Aspinall, who heads a foundation dedicated to conservation and sending gorillas back into the wild.
The little girl in the video is Aspinall’s daughter, Tansy. The blonde-haired toddler has a smile on her face as she pets, plays and is carried around by a gorilla.
Aspinall said he is releasing the video now to bring awareness to endangered gorillas and to show their gentle nature.
(Source: ABCNews, 16.09.2012)
Aspinall’s gorilla enrichment to enhance welfare
At Howletts and Port Lympne together they are fortunate enough to house the largest breeding collection of western lowland gorillas in the world. This enables them to keep their gorillas in large age diverse groups. This is one of the simplest yet most effective ways of enriching the lives of the gorillas, producing well-balanced individuals who exhibit species-specific behaviour.
The enclosures provide their gorillas with a 3 dimensional space. This is achieved in 3 main ways;
The floor area.
This is covered in a deep layer of straw, which is topped up with fresh straw daily. This is their attempt to recreate the leaf litter of the forest floor. It also supplies a source of heat in the winter, almost like under floor heating. At various times during the day they scatter small food items such as seeds and maize from the roof of the enclosures. By doing so they are encouraging the gorillas to forage, which is a natural behaviour. In the wild they would spend most of the day looking for food.
The gorillas are also provided with a vast variety of cage furniture. These are all at different heights and made from different materials. Some are fixed and some are mobile increasing the complexity of the gorilla’s environment. These include natural rope, fire hose, wooden platforms, tyres, slides, nesting baskets and fire hose hammocks.
The space frame.
This is the metal framework at the top of each enclosure. This is the key to the enclosure being 3 dimensional, like upstairs and downstairs in your own house. It creates a whole new space for the gorillas, as well as space for the keepers to attach cage furniture to.
Puzzle feeders are different objects that require the gorillas to think and manipulate ways of retrieving their food. Some puzzle feeders they use:
These are definitely a favourite of their gorillas. The trays that fit inside the pots are filled with honey, jam, lemon curd or sometimes even marmite! The gorillas poke sticks through the holes in the top and get a tasty treat on the end of the stick when they pull it back out.
A wooden maze that clips onto the side of the enclosure. The gorillas have to use sticks to manipulate the nuts from one end of the maze to the other, where they can get them out of the feeder.
These are a favourite of their younger gorillas. Small pieces of food are placed inside and as the gorillas spin them around the food falls out. They also provide hours of fun even when empty.
Hanging or fixed logs with drilled holes that are filled with honey, jam or lemon curd.
An extremely hard plastic ball with holes in it that can be filled with seeds, nuts or pellets.
Plastic bottles filled with nuts and seeds. The bottles beforehand are sterilised and free from wrappers and caps. This is to avoid cross contamination and the possible risk of injury to the gorillas.
Depending on the season they are able to offer their gorillas different novel food items. In doing this they are able to provide a vast variety to the animals’ diet as well as a form of mental stimulation. They provide large whole pumpkins, whole coconuts, freshly cut maize, different species of tree branches, and Swedish turnip which has been drilled and filled with goodies such as honey and seeds. Importantly, because the gorillas are so intelligent, they always have to think up new enrichment ideas.
Gorilla and Aspinall reunite
Damian Aspinall, son of the founder of Aspinall foundation, raised the Gorilla for years before releasing him to the conservation in West Africa. Five years have passed and Aspinall returns to check on the gorilla. Watch what happens.
(Source: The Aspinall Foundation — YouTube channel)
Directions to Howletts Zoo, The Aspinall Wild Animal Park
Howletts Wild Animal Park is located in Bekesbourne, Kent in the South East of England, just three miles south of Canterbury. It is within approximately one and a half hours’ drive of most locations in Surrey, Sussex and Essex, and is within easy reach of London.
Howletts Wild Animal Park is a 90 minute train journey from Victoria station in London which travels directly to Bekesbourne station (except on Sundays, when you either have to travel via Gillingham and Faversham or walk from Canterbury West station to Canterbury East station and continue to Bekesbourne — an extra 60 minutes). From Bekesbourne station it is just a short 15 minute walk to the Zoo entrance. A travel planner for this train ride you will find here.
There is no direct bus service from Canterbury to Howletts, but the bus to Folkestone operated by Stagecoach in Kent can drop you off at bus stop ‘Bekesbourne Road adj The Lodge, Canterbury Bypass, Bridge’. From there it is a 3 km walk to Howletts. More information on route and timetables here.
From Canterbury you can pedal to Bekesbourne via a scenic route on Bekesbourne lane to Howletts. I started my bike ride at the Canterbury campsite at the very beginning of Bekesbourne lane. Another 5 km later I parked my bicycle close to the entrance of the Zoo. Information on cycle routes and bicycle hire is available on the ActiveCanterbury website.
If you are travelling by car Howletts Wild Animal Park is in the southeast corner of Kent and lies just off the A2 past Canterbury. It is also a short distance from Folkestone and the southern coast of England.
From Surrey and Sussex
The fastest route will be to join the M25 and travel to join the M26/M20 in the direction of Dover and Folkestone. Leave the M20 Motorway at Junction 7, where you will join the A249 and follow signposts to the M2, then the A2 and Dover and Folkestone. Once you pass Canterbury, the way to Howletts Wild Animal Park is clearly signposted — just follow the brown tourist signs to the park. Estimated travelling time from Junction 8 of the M25 is approximately 1 hour.
From London and Essex
Take the A2 out of London or pick up at the A2 at the M25 intersection, and follow signs for Dover/Folkestone. Once you pass exit for Canterbury the way to Howletts Wild Animal Park is clearly signposted — just follow the brown tourist signs to the park. Estimated travelling time to Howletts from Junction 2 at the M25/A2 intersection is approximately 45 minutes.
Download the zoo map here.