Zoo inspectors to face questions from MPs over 500 animal deaths

Committee wants answers over conditions at South Lakes Safari zoo and why action wasn’t taken earlier

Zoo inspectors have been called to give evidence to MPs after it was revealed that nearly 500 animals died at a zoo in Cumbria in less than four years.

This week a damning report on conditions at South Lakes Safari zoo in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, which is home to more than 1,500 animals, found that 486 inhabitants had died of causes including emaciation and hypothermia between December 2013 and September 2016.

Zoo inspectors recommended that the local authority refuse to renew the zoo’s licence and that the zoo’s founder, David Gill, be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act for allowing animals to suffer. The council will decide whether or not to renew the zoo’s licence on Monday.

The inspectors, who are appointed by the government, found “overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care” when they visited in January.

Andrew Rosindell, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on zoos and aquariums, called on the government to launch an inquiry into how conditions at the zoo had been allowed to get so bad.

“I’d like to know what’s gone wrong here,” he said. “We in this country have a very proud record of conservation and animal welfare in zoos and what we are seeing in this zoo goes against what happens generally across the country.”

He said licensing bodies should attend his parliamentary group to “explain why this has been allowed to happen and explain why action wasn’t taken earlier”. He said he would be asking them to draw up nationwide guidelines for zoo inspectors.

Following the publication of the inspectors’ report, a spokeswoman for the Captive Animals Protection Society said the zoo licensing system was failing to protect animals and accused local authorities of neglecting to punish zoos that fell below required standards.

Last June the Cumbrian zoo was fined £255,000 for health and safety breaches after the death of zookeeper Sarah McClay, 24, who was mauled by a Sumatran tiger in 2013. Gill was criticised for saying McClay had died because she “failed to follow the correct procedures”.

Among a catalogue of animal deaths in the report were those of two snow leopard cubs named Miska and Natasja, which were discovered partially eaten in their enclosure. An African spurred tortoise named Goliath died after being electrocuted by electric fencing, and the decomposing body of a squirrel monkey was discovered behind a radiator.

The zoo was awarded a six-year licence to operate in June 2010 and the council received an application for renewal from Gill in January 2016. In July 2016 the council rejected the application, agreeing with inspectors that Gill was “not a fit and suitable person” to manage the zoo.

But the law dictates that if the licence holder reapplies for a new licence, the existing licence continues in force until the application has been processed or withdrawn.

Gill, who remains the licence holder, handed over management of the zoo to Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd and the chief executive, Karen Brewer, at the end of 2016, after concerns were raised about its governance. However, the inspectors remained unconvinced that this transfer of power was enough to change conditions.

“Between November and July 2015, nine different management teams have been proposed to the [local authority] to manage the zoo,” the report says. “But there has always been a single common denominator behind all these changes; [David Gill] continued to run the zoo, either directly or indirectly, with [Karen Brewer] being presented as the manager or CEO.”

In a response to an earlier inspectors’ report last year, the zoo complained that it was in a catch-22 situation, as it was unable to recruit the experienced managers required to improve while being threatened with closure.

The zoo’s managers also said the inspectors had not provided any data to support their claim that there was a higher than average death rate among animals. Neither Gill nor the zoo responded to a request by the Guardian for comment.

A visit to South Lakes Safari zoo on a rainy day this week revealed a untidy attraction with forlorn, soggy-looking animals. Most its handful of visitors – taking advantage of the free entry during winter months – had seen the previous day’s press reports about the number of deaths at the site, but didn’t know what to make of them.

Nicola, 28, and her sister Joanna, 35, were on a day trip with their two children from nearby Kendal. “Animals get sick. It’s a fact of life. They don’t last forever,” said Nicola. “The whole thing has been blown out of proportion.”

Her sister said: “You always see stories and I don’t know if the journalists are making things up because obviously a lot of people are against zoos.”

“At the end of the day there’s always going to be controversy. I believe that they’re doing a good enough job here and the animals look all right,” Nicola added.

Members of staff were understandably wary when questioned. “It’s been crazy,” said one. “The keepers are heartbroken.” Another admitted morale was low but said the staff were “keeping on keeping on”.

“We like our jobs and everyone is passionate about the animals and looking after them,” said a volunteer. “If we thought it was bad, we wouldn’t come here. We have a choice.”


Frances Perraudin North of England reporter

The GuardianTramp

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