A gambler to the last, Aspinall the risk-taker dies near his animals

Millionaire zoo-keeper from another era who cut a swathe through British business loses three-year fight against cancer
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Soon after he was diagnosed as having cancer, John Aspinall said: "You can have 5 to 2 against me making it, or, better yet, I'll give you 3 to 1. It's a good bet, I only have a 30 per cent chance of surviving this". It was, his friends held, typical of the inveterate millionaire gambler who had always taken a cavalier approach to his tempestuous life.

Soon after he was diagnosed as having cancer, John Aspinall said: "You can have 5 to 2 against me making it, or, better yet, I'll give you 3 to 1. It's a good bet, I only have a 30 per cent chance of surviving this". It was, his friends held, typical of the inveterate millionaire gambler who had always taken a cavalier approach to his tempestuous life.

Yesterday afternoon, after a three-year fight against the debilitating illness, Aspinall died at the age of 74 at his home in Port Lympne, near Folkestone, in Kent. He had received surgery at London's Royal Marsden Hospital. But, his friends said, it soon became clear to his wife Sarah and his four children that the illness was incurable. Earlier this month, when he celebrated his 74th birthday, all he could do was grip the hands of the guests in welcome.

The Port Lympne estate also housed one of his private zoos. Aspinall had said he wanted to be near his beloved animals when the end came. One of his last acts was to put the final touches to the John Aspinall Foundation which would continue with his work with animal parks.

Aspinall's rakish larger-than-life character could now be considered by many as being of another era. As, many would say, were his ideas on politics and society - he believed the main purpose of a woman is to "serve the dominant male" and that Britain needs a bout of "beneficial genocide".

To the wider public, Aspinall became known mainly for two things - his close friendship with Lord Lucan and propensity of animals in his private zoo to kill their keepers. His sympathy for Lucan, who disappeared after murdering his children's nanny and also the killer animals led to widespread opprobrium. He had been described as a "knee-jerk right-winger with a simple-minded but frightening views"; another critic said he may have loved animals, but had "a reckless regard for his own species".

Aspinall was born in colonial India in 1926, as a result of an extra-marital liaison by his mother, the wife of a major-general, apparently with her husband's indifferent tolerance. He discovered the identity of his biological father, another general called McKilrie Bruce, later in life, traced him and looked after him.

The young John was sent back to England to be educated. Rugby School expelled him for being " idle and rebellious", and his stints at Oxford and the Royal Marines were also cut short. He liked to boast he had missed an important examination by feigning a fainting fit so that he could attend the Ascot Gold Cup.

But Aspinall soon found his true vocation in the boom in gaming houses in London in the 50s and 60s. In 1962 he set up the Clermont Club in Mayfair which attracted a young, right-wing and extremely wealthy group of gamblers who were to cut a swathe in the future through Britain's business life. They including James Goldsmith and Tiny Rowland. Also there was Lord Lucan, who Aspinall always insisted had committed suicide after the murder of his nanny.

Aspinall spent much of the huge profits from gambling on the other great passion on his life, animals. After buying a flat in Belgravia, he built an enclosure in the garden for a tiger, two bears and a capuchin monkey. He went on to own much larger zoos attached to his other homes.

Aspinall's policy of encouraging the keepers to develop close relationships with animals led to criticism from other animal authorities. And the encounters proved lethal for five of the keepers over the years. Three were killed by tigers and another crushed by an elephant. In another accident a young boy's arm was ripped off by a chimpanzee.

But when Canterbury Council tried to ban keepers from entering tiger cages, Aspinall threatened to close the zoo to the public. He took the council to court and won. The last of Aspinall's wives, Sarah, shared his enthusiasm for animals. He is turn said she was "a perfect example of the primate female, ready to serve the dominant male and make his life agreeable".

Some of Aspinall's critics accused him of being openly racist. At best he could be said to have had a highly romanticised view of Africans as "noble savages". Later in his life he became a great supporter of Zulus in South Africa and accused the West of betraying them in the struggle against the ANC. In return the Inkhata leader Chief Buthelezi pronounced him a "white Zulu" at his 70th, thrown by the late Sir James Goldsmith.

At the last election, Aspinall stood as a candidate for Goldsmith's Referendum Party. But his health was already failing, and soon afterwards, in a television show, he said feared he was "close to death". He added: "I have never been able to afford anything in my life. I just take plunges and hope the gods smile on me later. They always have. Until now. Now I have to smile on my own. I'm not very well at the moment. I probably won't live very long. And they [my family] will be landed with something that loses, at the moment, £2.5m."

By February this year he was sanguine about the future, saying in another interview: "Immortality comes from your genes, provided you pass them on. I am amazed that any religion can demand more than that.I have two stout sons, one of whom has bred and another who will breed, and a daughter who has bred, so I've no wish to float through space as a soul. It's just a greedy illusion."

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