Damian Aspinall: Aquarium fish should be released

He is the conservationist who plans to send the animals in his parks back to the wild and has called for all zoos to close.

Now Damian Aspinall, who has recently hired the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson, has set his sights on banning aquariums.

“I think aquariums are really wrong,” he told The Sunday Telegraph, adding: “We do enough damage to marine life that why would we keep these beautiful animals in aquaria?  A lot of the fish are wild-caught too. If I had my way I’d rewild the fish.”

Mr Aspinall is celebrating after securing permission to send his herd of 13 elephants to Kenya, having escaped a diplomatic row when the country’s government said it had not been aware of the charity’s plans.

He now says this was a misunderstanding and the plans are in the final stages of sign off, with elephants expected to be sent abroad in six months to a year. 

“Our elephants have suffered probably less, but of course they’ve suffered,” Mr Aspinall said. “They’ve had foot conditions, they’ve had skin conditions, of course they’ve suffered over the years. So they are lucky they have eight acres of land to run around in but if you love elephants – as I do – really you have to want to send them back to Africa.”

The Aspinall Foundation’s next cause could be freeing fish from tanks and aquariums. Mrs Johnson, a former advisor to oceans charity Oceana and committed nature lover herself, agrees that fish "have less space to roam" in tanks and should be in the open seas.

Mrs Johnson pictured with Mr Aspinall agrees that fish "have less space to roam" in tanks

Mr Aspinall believes the millions spent on keeping the gentle creatures locked up in European zoos is a “travesty of justice”, adding that this money would be much better spent protecting wild animals from poachers.

Though it has been the “hardest thing he has ever done”, moving 13 elephants thousands of miles across the world, he would do it again in a heartbeat if another zoo relinquished their elephants to him.

He said: “If other zoos approached us and wanted to rewild their animals we would quite happily take them and take the responsibility. I don’t think the government should have to pay for this at all, I think zoological institutions should pay for it and we are certainly very happy to pay for it.”

The government is somewhat on board with his ideas, with ministers pointing to the Aspinall zoos as a good example of how wildlife parks can do in situ conservation. There are also plans to ban the breeding of elephants in this country so they are phased out of zoos, and to strip institutions of their charitable status if they do not spend enough of their income on conservation.

The ultimate aim of the Aspinall Foundation is to create a world where zoos no longer exist – which many may find ironic, as the charity originated as infamous gambling entrepreneur John Aspinall’s menagerie. Though he successfully released animals into the wild and was a great believer in wilderness, his son Damian goes further, and wishes to set a template for zoos around the world to follow.

“Zoos were created as a business, not as conservation,” he said, adding that enclosures are usually built, at great expense, “for benefit of the public, not for the animals.”

He thinks the government should regulate the money zoos spend, and that it should be used to help animals in the wild, and to create appropriate enclosures for the creatures in the zoo.

“When you build huge internal walkways or bridges or whatever these zoos do it tends to be very expensive,” he said.

“We have in our enclosures a lot more areas where the animals are off-show. Customers complain ‘ah it’s all overgrown’ but we have it overgrown on purpose as the animals like it because if they want to be off show we want to have long grass and scrubby bushes.”

He also claims that zoos lock their animals out in view of the public, so they have no way to have quiet and privacy.

“We would never lock an animal out on public display, most zoos will lock animals out on public display. It’s known that it causes animals mental distress and we would never do that. It still happens,” he said.

One aspect of the charity Mrs Johnson can perhaps help with more than other communications chiefs is the diplomacy involved in rewilding animals abroad. As someone who lives in Downing Street and has spent her working life around diplomats and politicians, she could be an important tool for the charity.

Mr Aspinall said he has struggled to get some countries on board with his vision, adding: “Many animals come from countries where it is impossible to rewild them. We have never managed to rewild any animal in India. We are working with some primates we’d love to rewild but because of the bureaucracy, governments involved you can’t do it. Carrie who has worked with us for a few months is beginning to understand the battles.”

And what would become of zoos once they lose all their animals? The Aspinall Foundation hopes they would be rescue centres for sick or hybridised animals which have no chance of surviving in the wild – so people could visit guilt-free.

“There is a role for rescue for welfare reasons,” Mr Aspinall said. "I think what will happen, what I hope will happen is these zoological institutions become rescue centres for animals.”

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