19th December 2022

Two red panda cubs, Tala and Sumi, born during the summer at Longleat Safari Park froze to death last week during the cold snap when temperatures dropped to -8C overnight.

Their tragic death was completely avoidable. The cold weather had been predicted and vulnerable animals should have been protected. Their enclosures should have been fitted with heaters which could be activated by a thermostat at a predetermined temperature.

In an attempt to excuse their negligence, Longleat have said that mortality of red panda cubs is high in the wild with just one in five panda cubs surviving to adulthood.

But this wasn’t in the wild. Tala and Sumi died in a zoo, where their environments are supposed to be managed to protect the animals’ welfare. 

Longleat has also claimed that the mother had started the weaning process and had stopped providing supportive feeds and that this also contributed to the cubs’ deaths. The weaning process is well understood and the zoo should have been aware of the risks, especially given the weather and the plunging temperatures. Although red pandas can survive very low temperatures in the wild for short periods of time, those kept in captivity in temperate countries like the UK will become locally adapted to the climate where they are kept captive. 

Red pandas are classified as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with just 2,500 in the wild. Cubs born previously at Longleat have been sent to other zoos to live their entire lives in captivity. It is unlikely that any captive bred red pandas will ever be released to the wild, instead they are sent to other zoos to breed more captive red pandas, simply to entertain the public.

Let's be clear, if a dog had frozen to death in a kennel or died from heat exposure in a car on a hot summer’s day, the person would, rightly, be prosecuted for causing unnecessary suffering under the Animal Welfare Act. The zoo should be held liable for these unnecessary deaths caused by their negligence.

This morning (19th December), BBC Breakfast Live carried a story about Longleat but of course they didn’t mention the death of the two red panda cubs. This was followed by Animal Park: Christmas Special filmed at Longleat. This programme included a section on the red panda cubs filmed before their tragic deaths. How sad that these red panda cubs are now dead due to the negligence of the zoo.

Every day seems to bring yet another story of zoos failing animals.

Also last week four chimpanzees were shot dead at a zoo in Sweden after they escaped from their cages. The zoo had run out of tranquilisers so they shot them. The zoo director has since been fired, but too late for the chimps which should not even have been there - chimps belong in the wild in Africa, not in a zoo in Scandinavia.

Zoos fail animals - it is time for them to be phased out.

Those that are able to should transition to becoming GFAS accredited sanctuaries and the animals assessed for release to wild. If release to the wild is not possible then they should live the remainder of their lives in the best possible environment, away from crowds of people staring at them in their cages. Those that are not able to transition to sanctuaries should close and animals moved to appropriate sanctuaries. 

The millions spent on keeping animals in cages would be better spent working with local communities to protect animals in the wild.