Catherine BennettSun, 21 February 2021, 8:15 am
Building on her success promoting the Conservative party, and then in ocean conservation PR, Carrie Symonds, who is also the prime minister’s fiancee, recently became communications director for the Aspinall Foundation, “an internationally renowned conservation charity”. It may be better known as the organisation running two zoos, Howletts and Port Lympne, founded by the late gambling magnate and society figure, John Aspinall. The charity is now run by his son, Damian.
Already, the hire seems to be paying off on both sides. Symonds’s tweets now feature cheetahs which have gone from romping with Mr and Mrs Aspinall in Kent to joining the attractions in a private South African game reserve. Also included in the cheetahs’ preparations for life in the wild were encounters with Symonds and Boris Johnson, after which both humans recorded their feelings on social media, and in Johnson’s case, his Telegraph column. The animals had got the father of five or so (this was before Wilfred) brooding, as they did Aspinall senior, on “unsustainable human fertility rates”.
As for Symonds, even in her brief visit she could tell how “happy and grateful” the animals were. “No frills. No entertainment. Everything is done for the benefit of animals, not of tourists.” Luckily the review seems not to have reached Tripadvisor, where paying tourists plainly remain under the impression some diversion will be on offer. And why otherwise would the foundation exhibit, along with rarer animals it excels at breeding, a creature like the meerkat?
Whether or not it has Symonds to thank, the charity has escaped significant coverage of the recent deaths of two lion cubs in Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve, reportedly from cold, instead enjoying acclaim for another cheetah removal scheme. Two cheetahs from Canada have been flown to a reserve in Zimbabwe. That the foundation considers species translocations, not all of them successful, a productive use of its resources has been challenged by other conservationists, but the ambitious rehomings undoubtedly attract media interest. Similarly, the focus on charismatic animals as opposed to less kissable but likewise dwindling families of invertebrates.
Yet more encouraging, perhaps, for the foundation, their Symonds appointment seems to have been reported without much unhelpful coverage of the charity’s founder, John Aspinall, other than as an eccentric who, being himself a skilled PR, liked to impress Londoners with a tiger. That Aspinall’s famous loyalty to Lord Lucan (including after the latter murdered Sandra Rivett) is so rarely perceived as a significant character defect must cause acute envy among the cast of Netflix’s Tiger King.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for an Aspinall Foundation’s PR will, however, be to maintain this safe reputational distance from a not particularly remote past dominated by an individual who emerges, even in the doting biography by Brian Masters, as a monster with a knack for animal breeding. In the John Aspinall era the zoos lost five keepers, three mauled to death by tigers and two crushed by elephants, while others, including his friend’s child, suffered life-changing injuries. When not advertising his own high status among captive animals, Aspinall was liberal with insights from the enclosures. His 1967 pamphlet regretted, for instance, that mankind allows “retrogressives and aberrants to breed without restraint”. Masters records a television debate, chaired by Jimmy Savile, on people/animal precedence at which Aspinall and his close friend James Goldsmith agreed that they were “no better than fascists”. Standing, later, for Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, Aspinall warned against politics that encouraged people to “interbreed with everyone else”.
Helpfully or not for the foundation’s work, Aspinall-Goldsmith connections continue, with the involvement of the Goldsmith dynasty as trustees and now of Symonds, a long-standing friend of her former boss, Zac Goldsmith, whose (failed) mayoral candidacy Damian Aspinall subsidised.
To date, in fact, the most pressing questions about Symonds’s wisdom in opting to promote, from the influential options available, an animal charity named for a eugenics-supporting exhibitionist who believed in dynasticism, male dominance and “beneficial genocide”, have focused on its management. The Daily Mail suggests that the Aspinall Foundation rents John Aspinall’s old house over-generously to his son, while Aspinall Jr’s wife, Victoria, has been paid for “interior design work”.
To be fair, she seems to have done a lot of cheetah rearing for nothing. From John Aspinall’s earliest days, intensive animal rearing was often delegated to wives without, to judge by the Masters biography, ever translating into respect. “The dominance of the male among all social primates has afforded him a superb excuse,” Masters reported, of Aspinall senior, “to treat women with the disdain which he would anyway have employed without the benefit of ethological study.”
Being well able to tolerate dominant Johnson males, Carrie Symonds may, as Peta’s person of the year 2020, be more likely to struggle with the conflict between the Aspinall Foundation’s activities – running zoos, and a strand in animal conservation that considers their captivity and exhibition – in zoos – abhorrent. “Animals aren’t actors, spectacles to imprison and gawk at, or circus clowns,” Peta says. Should Symonds hand back her title, which was not only awarded, Peta makes clear, for her skilful decoration of the Downing Street mascot, Dilyn, with themed and seasonal accessories? “Symonds is a true ally to animals,” Peta said.
How to explain her arrival – unless, under cover, she’s copying their keepers’ keys to the captive Port Lympne meerkats? They will be accustomed, it’s true, to hearing zoos regularly denounced as unjustifiable by Damian Aspinall, who continues, disarmingly calling himself a hypocrite, to exhibit them to the public, and even to bond publicly, in the style of his father, with more sensational animals.
Supposing she can reconcile her employer’s record in public zoo-disparagement with his foundation’s dependence on zoo prosperity, Symonds could even be the PR genius advertised by her supporters. Whether it makes her a “true ally to animals” is for Peta to decide.
- Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist