Fate of lynx shot dead in Wales raises questions over 'hobby zoos'

Hollywood film We Bought a Zoo showed feelgood side of amateur zookeeping, but some are calling for tighter restrictions

When the Mee family bought Dartmoor Zoological Park in October 2006, it was in a state of complete dilapidation. The initial attraction had been the 12-bedroom, 18th-century house on the edge of the Dartmoor national park in Devon, with the attached zoo a “massive encumbrance” that was putting off buyers.

After some research the former science journalist Benjamin Mee decided the site could not only be a new home for his family, but also a new career. He concluded that if he “not only employed people who knew what they were doing, but also took their advice”, then he could reverse the fortunes of the 30-acre wildlife park, with its 200 exotic animals.

“It needed hundreds of thousand of pounds spending on it to get it up to licensing standard again,” said Mee. “So it was a huge gamble. But we just thought, if we don’t do it [the zoo] will definitely close … and it would just be wrong for those animals to be destroyed.” In 2011, Mee’s account of his family’s decision to buy, renovate and reopen the zoo was turned into the film We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon.

But the reality of so-called “hobby zoos”, run by animal enthusiasts who might lack relevant professional experience, may not always be worthy of a feelgood Hollywood movie – and this week the problems they can face came to the surface. On Tuesday, the Lynx UK Trust called on the government to abolish zoos run by “amateurs” after it was revealed that two lynx had died in the care of the Borth Wild Animal Kingdom near Aberystwyth. One, Nilly, was accidentally strangled in what was described as “a terrible handling error” days before the other, Lillith, was shot on the orders of the local authority following her escape.

The fate of Lillith and Nilly has highlighted a fierce debate over whether the standards applied to zoo owners are adequate – or if they are so lax as to risk being dangerous. “What if it had been Borth’s crocodile that escaped? Or their two lions?” said Dr Paul O’Donoghue, chief scientific adviser to the trust. “How long are we going to let these hobby zoos run by amateurs keep operating? Will it take the death of a human for someone to take action?”

Like Dartmoor, Borth zoo was bought in a state of dilapidation, by animal lovers Dean and Tracy Tweedy for £625,000 in April. Speaking to the Guardian on Monday, Dean Tweedy denied that Borth was a “hobby zoo”. “We have ploughed everything we have got into this and we are doing it for the animals,” he said.

Earlier this year, there were calls for South Lakes Safari zoo in Barrow-in-Furness to be closed after a damning report found that 486 of its animals had died of causes including emaciation and hypothermia between December 2013 and September 2016. The year before, the zoo had been fined £255,000 for health and safety breaches after the 24-year-old zookeeper Sarah McClay was mauled to death by a Sumatran tiger in 2013. The council, describing the zoo’s owner David Gill as “not a fit and suitable person” to manage the zoo, finally stripped him of his licence in March.

Animal welfare campaigners argue that the incidents at South Lakes and Borth demonstrate that the current licensing system doesn’t work, and describe it as “absolutely ridiculous” that someone without qualifications and relevant experience can set up a zoo. “They’re being put in charge of a wide range of species with different, complex behavioural needs and requirements,” said Maddy Taylor, campaigns officer at the Captive Animals’ Protection Society.

Under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, individuals can apply for a licence as long as they have not committed an animal welfare offence. They must demonstrate that their zoo will conduct conservation research or training, breed wild animals in captivity or repopulate an area with wild animals. Each local authority is responsible for the licensing of zoos in its area, with government-appointed zoo inspectors helping it to consider applications and with inspections.

“Some local authorities are very hot on [zoo standards],” said Chris Draper, head of animal welfare at the charity Born Free. “But, I’m afraid, some don’t know very much at all.” His organisation, which campaigns to “keep wildlife in the wild”, has called for zoo inspections to be centralised and overseen by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “Leaving these animals to the whims of individual owners and to the vagaries of a very complicated licensing system is not acceptable,” he said.

Mee disagrees that regulation of zoos is inadequate, saying the guidelines on modern zoo practices are “very, very specific”. He said standards could vary from region to region but that overall they were “extremely high and you can’t fake it”.

In the year leading up to Mee obtaining a licence to open Dartmoor zoo to the public again – a period during which his wife Katherine died of cancer – the park saw its own mishaps, including the escape of a jaguar and a wolf, both of whom were recaptured unharmed. In July last year, the zoo made headlines when a lynx called Flaviu went on the run for more than three weeks before being found “grumpy but safe”.

Mee argues that coming to zookeeping with an outsider’s perspective can be useful. “People have said it provides a fresh way of looking at stuff,” he said. “Why do we do it this way? Why don’t we do it that way? But obviously there are limits and you have to really respect the industry that you’ve gone into and listen to the experts.”

Tim Brown, chairman of the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, argues that the history of zookeeping is dotted with “hobbyists” who started their own animal collections, pointing to the conservationist Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals, who founded Jersey zoo.

Mee cites nearby Paignton zoo, which started its life as the millionaire Herbert Whitley’s private collection before being opened to the public in 1923. “In the end his heart was very much in the right place in terms of conservation as opposed to snatch and grab from the wild to show off,” said Mee.

Draper from Born Free said the term “hobby zoo” actually drew an unhelpful distinction between types of institution. “Every zoo needs to meet the standards required in the law, so it doesn’t matter if you are London zoo, Chester zoo, Bristol zoo, or a little farm park with a handful of exotic animals.” In the end, Mee said, the primary concern of zookeepers like him and charities like Born Free was the welfare of the animals. “We all love the animals, but it’s about agreeing how to best look after them.”


Frances Perraudin

The GuardianTramp

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