Saturday, June 6News For London

Behind the glass: the secret world of zoo inspections

Almost 500 animals died over four years at a zoo in Cumbria, and yet inspectors allowed the zoo to remain open. How do zoo inspections work, and what went wrong?


The South Lakes Safari Zoo (SLSZ) in Cumbria made headlines earlier this month after a shocking report showed that almost 500 animals died within four years.

Among the 486 deaths were five young baboons and seven healthy lion cubs who were euthanised because there wasn’t enough space to house them. A jaguar had chewed off it’s own paw, a lemur was killed after entering the wolf enclosure, and a squirrel monkey was found decomposing behind a radiator.

According to reports, the “overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care” were noticed by zoo inspectors during their inspections. Yet it continued to remain open.

SLSZ has a long history of mismanagement: In 2013, it made headlines once again after worker Sarah McClay was mauled to death by a tiger. The zoo was fined £225 million last June due to the health and safety breaches that led to her death.

While inspections remain an integral part of the zoo process, confusing licensing and infrequent visits lead to lower standards in zoos across the country. Meanwhile, the public remains unaware of the failings behind-the-scenes. According to a report from the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS), 75% of issues raised during zoo inspections are not met.

This raises the questions: how do they work, and what can be done to ensure this never happens again?

Inside South Lakes:

This skeletal kangaroo was spotted by CAPS at the zoo last July. [Credit: CAPS / Facebook]
I think it was around late spring or early summer last year that we received concerns from a member of the public about South Lakes,” says Maddy Taylor, the Campaigns Officer at CAPS. She had been aware of the zoo’s rocky history, but the complaint is what “prompted [her] to start keeping an eye on them.”

After reading the inspection reports last July and hearing that the council wasn’t going to renew South Lake’s license, CAPS sent a team of investigators to look around. Major concerns regarding many of the animals were raised after they found a lack of water in the penguin exhibit, a mongoose with a visible skin condition, and an emaciated kangaroo.

More recently, a member of Born Free visited the zoo. “There were certainly some issues of concern,” adds Chris Draper, the Associate Director for Animal Welfare. Alongside muddy and waterlogged enclosures and unhygienic animal feedings, big cats were seen pacing repetitively, a sign of potential welfare problems:

“The nub of the problem is that the general public can visit zoos and be unaware of a lot of veterinary, animal welfare, and management issues,” remarks Draper. “It’s only when things get really bad that stuff becomes visible to the general public.”

Still, visitors to SLSZ had noticed a decline in the health and safety of the animals. On a recent visit, a woman on Facebook described the once “nice, happy” zoo in “poor conditions,” citing ill-looking llamas, giraffes, and emus as worrisome in her review:

A SLSZ visitor describes poor conditions on a recent family trip [Credit: South Lakes Safari Zoo / Facebook]

Another relayed her story about the zoo’s giraffes in a Facebook post that’s now had over a thousand shares:


The Inspection Process:

“All zoos are subjected to a full inspection by Defra-appointed experts, local authority vets, and licensing officials,” writes Andrew Rosindell M.P., the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for zoos and aquariums. These happen every 3-6 years, and the reports are then kept by the local council.

Credit: Bri Wink

Inspectors look at everything from animal welfare and their enclosures to veterinary services. Equipment storage, food preparation areas, and detailed files of every animal in the zoo are also checked. They also assess staff training and security.

However, the examinations might not be as thorough as they sound. CAPS discovered that most inspections only take place during one working day, allowing an average of 36 seconds with each animal. In the largest zoos in England, it’s reduced to just 1.4 seconds.

“I firmly believe that one day is insufficient in order to assess all the things that zoo inspectors are supposed to assess,” declares Draper. “It’s totally inadequate to expect to do a thorough investigation.”

Records from the Barrow council show that a combined yearly and renewal inspection of South Lakes took place in 2015 over a two day period. After setting a long list of conditions, the same inspection team went back in early 2016 to see if they had followed through:

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Knowing Gill’s history, inspectors had set a condition to ensure he take a step back from SLSZ. Though they noted during both walk-throughs that the condition hadn’t been met, they failed to upgrade it to a ‘direction order.’ Instead, they suggested the council not renew Gill’s license.

But if a zoo continuously fails, a direction order can lead to permanent closure. It’s a process that’s almost never followed, according to Taylor.  

“By never elevating conditions to direction orders when they were supposed to, a lot of these zoos that potentially should have closed down didn’t,” she says. “There’s no way they would have done because the process wasn’t followed.”

It seems like broken and complicated system: that same CAPS study uncovered that 95% of zoos inspected should have had legal action taken against them between 2005 and 2011. However, this only happened twice. It also revealed that between those same years, 380 inspections were missed altogether. It’s a statistic that Taylor calls “absolutely shocking.” 

Along with failing procedures, Draper mentions that having an ad hoc inspectorate causes disparity amongst the inspections themselves. He says: “There is no consistency. You might have a team of two inspectors doing one zoo and another two doing the other zoo, and you’ve got no guarantee that they’re even looking at the same things.”

Yet Rosindell disagrees. “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 says.

Looking to the future:

What’s in store for future zoo inspections? [Photo: @wifeofrage / Instagram]
Draper believes that the solution to these problems lies in a more centralised licensing and inspection process. Along with formal inspections held every year, he thinks that the control should be taken out of the hands of local councils. Having it spread across nearly 400 local authorities in the UK is preposterous,” he says.

However, BIAZA insists that the process shouldn’t need to be centralised, as the current framework allows the local authorities to maintain consistency. “In light of SLSZ a review of procedures would be a useful tool to assess what is needed,” they say in a statement, “but it’s important to remember that this is one authority and it would be hard to generalise across the board without a review.”

The local authorities have decided not to renew Gill’s license, but South Lakes will continue to remain open until the council makes a decision on the new applications later this summer.

However, Taylor is quick to remind me that it isn’t just SLSZ facing problems. “This situation is unprecedented,” she remarks, “but in regards to zoos across the board, we receive complaints on a weekly basis about something.”

She continues: “We’ve got three zoos that we need to investigate, and probably about five others on our radar with cause of concern. Since all of this has come out we’ve had more people come forward with concerns about zoos in their area, so it’s a fluctuating number.”

But Rosindell remains optimistic. “The majority of zoos are well-run and fulfil the roles of conservation, education and scientific discovery,” he writes. He does plan on discussing the inspection practices at the next parliamentary group to ensure a repeat of South Lakes Safari Zoo never happens. However, he “firmly believes that this does not accurately reflect, nor has any impact on, the future of zoos in general.”


Inspection reports available from Barrow Council.
Video created by Bri Wink