Investigators from UK charities, Freedom for Animals and Lion Aid, have today released evidence to suggest that white lions bred at West Midland Safari Park have been shipped, via a UK animal trainer, to a travelling circus in Japan. The news has been branded “a shocking betrayal of both the animals and the public” by the two investigating organisations.

In 2010, Freedom for Animals obtained footage of white lions being trained for a circus-style performance at Oxfordshire-based animal training business, Amazing Animals (which also goes by the name Heythrop Zoological Gardens). A few months later, information was received that the same big cats had been supplied to Amazing Animals by West Midland Safari Park and were due to be shipped to Japan to join the Kinoshita Circus later in that year.

Further research carried out more recently by Lion Aid has shown import and export records match with the information provided, and monitoring of captive lion populations appears to confirm that West Midland is the only UK zoo with sufficient white lions to be the source. The link between the zoo and Amazing Animals was confirmed beyond any doubt when a 2007 episode of the zoo’s own television show, Safari Park, was unearthed by investigators. The episode shows the zoo’s Head Keeper, Bob Lawrence, delivering two lion cubs to Amazing Animals and discussing their future use in the entertainment industry with the business’ owner, Jim Clubb.

The Kinoshita Circus’ website states that four white lions currently being used in shows were all born in “a UK zoo” and that “when they became 6 months old, they were moved to an animal training facility in UK. They began training there when they were 18 months old”. A Japanese investigator has confirmed that one lion has since been moved to a zoo in western Japan, following fighting with the other animals. The lion is reported to have developed a “nervous disease called autonomic ataxia” and his mane has fallen out completely.

When contacted by a journalist from UK national newspaper the Sunday Express last week on the subject, a spokesperson for the UK zoo admitted: “West Midland Safari Park sent white lions to Heythrop Zoological Gardens in good faith and were unaware of any subsequent moves”. Clubb confirmed to the same journalist in a telephone conversation that “temporarily we had some cubs here once” but denied sending any lions to the Japanese circus. This is in spite of articles published in a leading circus industry magazine, King Pole, which confirms that the lions used in the Kinoshita show are owned and trained by Clubb’s business, stating: “All the big cats, giraffe and zebras are trained and owned by Jim Clubb’s ‘Amazing Animals’ at Heythrop. The Clubb organisation have had a continuing contract to provide not only animals but trainers with Circus Kinoshita, these particular animals left the UK in 2000.”

The same magazine reviews an open day at Amazing Animals where the big cat act showcased by Clubb was being prepared for Japan. The footage filmed at Amazing Animals in 2010 hears Clubb calling the lions by name as they perform tricks. The names are the same as those white lions listed on the Kinoshita circus’ website.

Said Nicola O'Brien, Campaigns Director of Freedom for Animals:

The current Government has promised an outright ban on the use of wild animals in circuses as a result of overwhelming public, expert and Parliamentary support. And yet here we have a zoo apparently providing lion cubs to this cruel and unethical trade via a middleman, whilst publicising their work to their paying visitors as based in conservation and welfare. What the zoo means by stating that the animals were supplied in “good faith” is unclear, given that Amazing Animals openly trains and supplies animals to the circus industry. It is an appalling betrayal of those people that trust the zoo to protect and care for the animals. But most importantly, it is an appalling betrayal of the lion cubs who appear to have been abandoned to this hopeless fate by West Midland Safari Park.

In addition to welfare and ethical concerns, Dr Pieter Kat of Lion Aid raised concerns over the wider issue of breeding white lions:

Said Dr Kat:

“All white lions are derived from a single small population discovered near Kruger National Park in South Africa. The white coat colour is caused by a recessive gene and the animals are known as leucistic. Leucism is seen among mammals, fish, reptiles and birds, but is only expressed in homozygous recessives. White lions are therefore by definition inbred, and since they all derive from one small founder population, progressive inbreeding can be expected to lead to a number of aberrant disorders like skeletal deformities, immune system deficiencies, digestive problems and neurologic conditions.

In South Africa, lion breeders intentionally inbreed lions expressing the white coat colour for trophy hunting and for international sales and a number of zoos around the world have bought them. Because white lions are purposely inbred, zoos should not have them in their collections. They might be “cute” but contribute nothing to increasingly urgent conservation needs of their tawny relatives in the wild.”

West Midland Safari Park is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria, an organisation which dubs itself “the professional body representing the best zoos and aquariums in Britain and Ireland”. A previous Freedom for Animals investigation carried out in 2009 saw Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm thrown out of BIAZA following its links with a UK circus being exposed.

BIAZA has published a paper confirming its opposition to the breeding of white lions in zoos stating that: “severe in-breeding has resulted in a number of congenital disorders and abnormalities, which may severely impact on the health and welfare of these animals”. It is unclear whether any action will be taken by BIAZA following this news.

Other leading animal welfare organisations, the RSPCA and the Born Free Foundation also raised concerns as the evidence surfaced.

Dr Andrew Kelly, Head of the RSPCA’s Wildlife Department said: “The RSPCA is appalled that West Midland Safari Park is breeding white lions. There is no conservation or education benefit in this and intensive inbreeding in these animals leads to severe health and welfare problems”.

Chris Draper, Senior Scientific Researcher from the Born Free Foundation said: “We are calling on the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums to urgently review its membership and its policies and act decisively to ensure that animals do not leave its member zoos for use in the circus. Modern zoos claim to focus on conservation, education and high standards of animal welfare. Breeding animals on the basis of their unusual colouring and providing animals for dubious entertainment make a mockery of these claims. If the zoo industry is unable to get its own house in order, then better and more effective legislation and enforcement should be introduced as a priority”.

Your support is more vital than ever. 

Donate today to end the exploitation of animals in captivity.