Zoo gorillas released to the wild

Controversial conservationist Damian Aspinall wants to close all zoos, including his own, and free the animals to the wild. But is it a good idea?

Preview: Back to the Wild 01:35

The rich owner of two animal parks in the U.K. is on a controversial mission to release the animals he has bred in captivity and free them in the wild. Lesley Stahl reports on Damian Aspinall's contempt for zoos and his project to release a family of captive gorillas into an African forest. Her report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, March 15 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

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Aspinall grew up playing with animals like gorillas and tigers that were kept on his family's country estate. But he has become disenchanted with the idea of keeping such animals simply for the pleasure of humans and is now on a mission to release them into the wild.

He thinks all zoos should do that. "If I could extinguish all the zoos over the next 30 years, including my own...I wouldn't hesitate," he says. He dismisses the notion that zoos are ambassadors for animal protection and educators that encourage conservation in the wild. "There is no evidence. It's a lie," he tells Stahl. And, he adds, pleasing children is no reason to keep animals in captivity. "We don't have the right as a species to take animals to pleasure our children. That disgusts me. These poor animals."

Aspinall, who owns Aspers, the U.K. casino chain, has bred thousands of wild and endangered animals on the grounds, before he began to finance expeditions around the world to release them. But many conservationists disagree with his mission. "Maybe it makes him feel good...but it's not conservation," says Tara Stoinski, president of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, run out of Zoo Atlanta, home to the largest collection of gorillas in North America. "We need funds to be going into saving these wild places so that the animals...can continue to survive."

Aspinall has had success in the past releasing gorillas, mostly babies, into the wild. The vast majority have survived and even multiplied. But 60 Minutes cameras joined him on his most ambitious undertaking yet: releasing an entire gorilla family, including adults, to the wilds of Gabon. Conservationists warned this would not go well, and Aspinall himself knew there were a lot of risks involved. Our cameras were there at the final stage - the day the 10 gorillas were let off an island they had spent a year on acclimating. Damian and his crew built a small "bridge to freedom" allowing the gorillas to cross into the unprotected wild. On Sunday's 60 Minutes, Stahl reports on how the gorilla family fared.