13 November 2017 • Ann Johnson

How many more zooed animals have to needlessly suffer and die before our government takes meaningful action throughout the failing UK zoo industry?

A second lynx belonging to the the Borth Wild Animal Kingdom in Wales has died following a “handling error”. This news comes after Eurasian lynx Lilleth was shot dead on Friday two weeks after leaping over a fence at the zoo.

A statement from Borth Wild Animal Kingdom states: “It is with deep sadness and regret we announce the demise last week of Nilly, an adult female lynx, who was unrelated to Lilleth but shared an enclosure.

“Unfortunately, there seems to have been a terrible handling error where it seems she twisted in the catch-pole and became asphyxiated.”

Lilleth, who was shot dead on Friday 10 November after straying into a caravan park near Aberystwyth town centre, was free for almost two weeks following her  escape. Local people raised the alarm and Ceredigion county council ordered Lilleth to be killed after declaring she was a threat to public safety.

Andrew Venables, a marksman who runs a local firearms training school, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “The very sad truth is the fact an animal was allowed to escape in the first place and that the owners were unable to catch it over a three-week period of grace.”

This tragic situation is yet another example of a poorly run, inadequately supervised UK zoo industry, where animal welfare standards and human safety procedures are routinely compromised and where the animals often seem secondary to other forms of ‘entertainment’. This toxic fusion of business management decisions is resulting in fatalities for both human and non-human animals.

LAST YEAR Bristol zoo was criticised by the Captive Animals Protection Society for staging an adults-only ‘Big Night Out’ event with alcohol and loud music from a live band. The event, which charged £15 a head for 1400 people, was billed by the zoo beforehand as “perfect for birthdays, stag and hen parties” and where “animal welfare would not be compromised”. Complaints were made about the sound from the event stressing the animals.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Wetlands Animal Park, Retford, closed down, citing their own retirement. This was soon after PETA filed a complaint about the facility with the RSPCA which included testimony from an expert veterinarian concerning a cow’s overgrown hooves, which could lead to lameness and pain; hair loss in sheep, which may be the result of parasites, fungal or bacterial infections, and/or nutritional deficiencies; and feather loss in birds.

IN FEBRUARY, media reports surfaced that 11 rainbow lorikeets at Drusillas Park, in East Sussex, had been accidentally killed in their enclosure after a pest control company put toxic bait underground to catch rats. Some of the birds had been attacked by the rats and others died after eating residual bait dropped by the rodents. This news came to light when an animal rights group was tipped off.

IN MARCH one of the worst cases surfaced: David Gill, owner of the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Dalton-in-Furness, where 486 animals died from January 2013 to September 2016, lost his bid to renew his licence. Following a site visit in January, government-appointment inspectors said they were “…dismayed by the obvious deficiencies in the accommodation, the overcrowding and the lack of proper welfare and husbandry. Deaths included two rare snow leopards found partially eaten and “Seven healthy lion cubs euthanised because the zoo did not have space to house them”. The inspectors also found cold animals in the unheated Africa House, which was so badly designed, its sloped yard was finished with smooth instead of rough concrete, causing a giraffe to slip to his/her  death. Addition concerns were raised about animals fighting each other, uncontrolled breeding of lemurs and a heightened risk of public safety. In June 2016, South Lakes was fined £255,000 after one of its employees, Sarah McClay, 24, was killed in May 2013 by a Sumatran tiger. The zoo continues to operate under new management.

IN MAY 33 year-old Rosa King, a keeper at Hamerton Zoo Park, Cambridgeshire was killed after entering the tiger enclosure.

IN JUNE eight Humboldt Penguins were killed, apparently overnight by an urban fox who accessed their enclosure at Chessington World of Adventures Resort. After the killings, ‘Penguin Bay’ was closed off and a sign placed at the entrance saying: ‘Our Humboldt Penguins are currently enjoying their other home behind-the-scenes while we make alterations to Penguin Bay’.

IN JULY at Walton Hall Zoo in Warrington, three pygmy goats died after they were given deadly rhododendron leaves during a late night break-in.

The above are some examples of the vulnerability of captive animals in UK zoos due to factors such as lack of experience of zoo owners and staff, poorly designed enclosures, inadequate safety frameworks and, in the worst cases, sheer neglect leading to suffering and death. These are the instances we know of; how many more cases never reach the public domain? Most staff at zoos are likely to be dedicated people who love and respect the animals for whom they care. The fact that some become whistle-blowers when they feel there is no other course of action, is surely a comment on their chains of management.

So just what is going wrong with British zoos? Governments constantly repeat the mantra, “The UK has some of the best animal welfare laws in the world.” Yet animals were suffering and dying in South Lakes Safari Zoo for nigh on four years before David Gill lost his licence. 

It was reported in the Telegraph that Dr Paul O’Donoghue, chief scientific adviser to the Lynx Trust said: “I’ve visited Borth zoo and had the entire sequence of events explained to me.

“What if it had been Borth’s crocodile that escaped? Or their two lions? UK hobby zoos are a disaster waiting to happen, if they aren’t closed down I am in no doubt that eventually someone will be killed by an escaped and unpredictable captive-bred animal.”

There are serious questions to be answered around the whole UK zoo industry which includes the growth area of ‘mobile’ zoos. How thorough is the system to screen prospective zoo owners before licences are issued? How frequently are inspections made to see whether or not laws and guidelines are being correctly implemented? How often are independent checks made to examine the health and welfare conditions of zooed animals – is there even enough time for vets to see them all given the huge numbers being confined? How regularly are welfare laws and regulations revised, including around issuing of licenses?

The most obvious question now is, how many more zooed animals have to needlessly suffer and die in such circumstances before our government meets its responsibilities and takes meaningful and action throughout the whole UK zoo industry?

* This year, Responsible Travel, with the support of the Born Free Foundation, became the first travel company to withdraw trips that include visits to all zoos worldwide. It is currently conducting an audit of all captive animal facilities visited on the trips it sells. Responsible Travel was established in 2001, supporting responsible tourism with the prevalent terms of ‘ecotourism’ and ‘green tourism’ with the emphasis firstly on creating better places for local people, and secondly for tourists. 

Further details: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/second-lynx-killed-at-wales-wildlife-park_uk_5a098baee4b05673aa5a9a03

And on UK zoos in general: https://www.captiveanimals.org/news/2017/11/the-elephant-in-the-room-life-and-death-in-uk-zoos

Main page photo of lynx: Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation