27th October 2022

Freedom for Animals, welcomes today’s media coverage of the infamous South Lakes Zoo (now known as Cumbria Zoo) and shares the concerns of our colleagues at Born Free Foundation about the conditions the animals are being kept in. This is not the first time that this zoo has abjectly failed in its duty of care to the animals.  

A History of Abuse

In 2017, Freedom for Animals published a report calling for the infamous South Lakes Zoo in Cumbria, to have its licence rejected and be forced to close its doors, after carrying out an undercover investigation that led to the nationwide publication of damning evidence regarding the treatment of all captive animals imprisoned there.

Animals were found to be dying from hypothermia, exposure, emaciation and even, shockingly, one animal was killed by a vehicle, due to a complete disregard for safety and care being shown by zoo owners and many staff.

The report also published evidence of penguins suffering in 29 degree heat with no water in their pool, and emaciated kangaroos starving to death in the open. The zoo also hit the headlines as far back as 1997, after a beautiful white rhino escaped their enclosure, fell into a ditch and was subsequently shot dead. Not only were animals found to be victims of the terrible conditions, but also a number of humans; including that of a keeper at the zoo, who was heartbreakingly killed by Padang, a male tiger incarcerated at the zoo in 2013, after a defective bolt door allowed the animal to enter into the corridor where she was working. 

However despite the amount of evidence gathered, and the public outcry and council meetings that subsequently followed, in 2017, the South Lakes Zoo was permitted a new licence and allowed to continue trading under the new management of the Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd. In a statement given at the time, the new management assured the public that although the team would remain the same, the management would differ and assurances made that animal welfare would be paramount. David Gill, the owner of the zoo during the exposure of abuse, further assured the public of his lack of involvement in the new ownership, and stated how he wished to pass his “legacy” to a new team. 

However FFA discovered this to all be far from true. Out of eight of the directors, four were past directors or key managers when the zoo was facing the charges of neglect, and even the new CEO - Karen Brewer - was present in the zoo since 2011, and, crucially, present as a representative of the zoo on inspections where so many of the welfare concerns and deaths were highlighted at the time. Even the veterinarian coordinator who sits on the board of directors, is the wife of past CEO David Gill. FFA raised concerns at the time, regarding the lack of change within the management team, as we feared the previous allegations of abuse would not be addressed or taken as seriously as they should be to better protect the lives of animals held captive in such dire conditions.

We now know our concerns were real.

The Suffering Continues

Five years later, South Lakes Zoo is back in the headlines for serious animal health and welfare allegations, this time being held to account after an investigation by our colleagues at Born Free which took place earlier this month. The report published the horrendous reality so many of the incredible individuals forced to live there are still suffering, with cases such as that of a female giraffe who was seen to have extremely overgrown and curved hooves due to a lack of regular and preventative foot care. The Africa House, where the giraffes and other many African species are housed, was an area of particular concern; with a lack of enrichment in all enclosures leading to obvious stereotypies being exhibited, including oral stereotypes performed by the giraffes, likely due to a lack of sufficient browsing provisions, and many herd species such as zebras, rhinos, nyala and wildebeest all being held in solitary confinement due to a serious lack of space in the area, meaning that many of the species cannot gain access to the shared paddock at certain times throughout the day.

Inspection reports in 2021, obtained by BFF, also raised this issue, especially in regards to the nyala who was stated to be in solitary for “a considerable period”, however there seems to have been no adjustments made to address this, even a year later. 

Other serious observations were that of a lone Andean bear, who was showing signs of terrible zoochosis (serious stereotypies).

The bear was witnessed to be swaying in front of the same section of fence and tapping the electric fence with their paw, over and over again. When they moved inside, they would come straight back out and repeat the same behaviour again.

So desperately bored are these poor individuals, they often go mad from trying to entertain themselves in any way possible. It is so heartbreaking to witness. A lack of enrichment and company is enough for anyone to lose their minds, and it’s all too common in zoo environments. 

A lack of appropriate heating was also raised as an issue in the BFF 2022 report, with a number of animals forced to live in insufficient temperatures for their species. Many primates were observed to be clinging to the closest part of the enclosure to any apparent heat lamps, and sloths desperately trying to reach small and lacking heat sources with other species, such as tortoises, in their enclosures.

The new BFF report shows that nothing has changed at South Lakes Zoo since they were originally exposed by FFA in 2017 and over the intervening years, and animals are still suffering from extreme neglect. The disgraceful evidence that has mounted against the zoo's animal welfare breaches is vast, and yet, somehow, allowed to continue due local authorities failing to take appropriate enforcement action.

The Zoo Licencing Act is supposed to exist to protect animals in a zoo environment, and ensure there aren't situations where animals suffer extreme neglect. South Lakes Zoo is a prime example of how many zoos fall through the cracks, and allow serious suffering to take place on their watch. And yet, rather than having their licence revoked or refused, they have shockingly been allowed to continue over so many years, even after showing time and time again that they are not adhering to conditions set out within the licence.

What will it take, and how many failures will be allowed to take place, before councils fully close down these horrendously neglectful zoos? South Lakes Zoo is a clear example of how animals are being horrifically let down by councils reluctance to take responsibility and properly enforcing the conditions set out in the Zoo Licencing Act. 

We know at FFA, that all zoos fail to provide the necessary stimulation and environment necessary for such wild animals to thrive. But when serious animal abuse claims go unnoticed and unaddressed, even when sufficient evidence is presented, you know the system is completely flawed, and will never have the interests of the animals at heart. Zoos exist for profit and nothing more.

For too long, South Lakes Zoo has swept animal abuse under the carpet, and the local council continues to be complicit by failing to improve the lives of the suffering captive animals kept there, and following up on their concerns in inspections. Enough is enough. New management has, and will not, change the reality - it is now time for this zoo to be refused a licence and permanently closed. The animals should all be moved to appropriate or GFAS accredited sanctuaries where they can be assessed for release or, if release is not possible, live the remainder of their lives in the best possible environment, away from the cruelty and indifference they’ve known their whole lives at South Lakes Zoo.

South Lakes Zoo must be closed down now!