27th February 2019

An investigation into the emergency drills in case of animal escapes at UK zoos by iNews revealed a shocking lack of appropriate precautions being taken in a large number of zoos.

Such lapses in security are incredibly dangerous and can result in horrendous animal deaths, such as that of endangered Amur tiger Shouri, who was killed at Longleat Safari Park this month following a fight with two others after a door was left open between enclosures.

iNews revealed that dozens of British zoos received warnings by inspectors for failing to carry out adequate emergency drills for dealing with escaped animals, with some procedures being described as ‘rather vague’ in inspection reports. An analysis of more than 150 zoo licensing inspection reports, taken between 2016-2018, revealed that shockingly 32 zoos and animal parks failed to properly carry out or record escape drills in that time. Under the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act, zoos and aquariums must conduct escape drills at least four times a year.

Other worrying issues that were highlighted in the reports included:

  • failure to lock doors
  • lack of electrical safeguards on gates to large carnivore drive-through exhibits
  • a ‘weak barrier’ on a jaguar enclosure
  • a cobra enclosure that keepers had to enter head-first through a narrow opening
  • an unlabelled piranha tank with an open lid
  • a tentacled snake exhibit left unpadlocked
  • a lemur enclosure where the public could be bitten or subjected to an electric shock if they put their fingers through wire mesh
  • a room holding a venomous snake was cluttered with potential hiding spaces, as well as a hole in the wall

Such issues could prove incredibly dangerous to the public, or even the zoo workers themselves. In 2017, visitors had to be evacuated when an orangutan escaped from their enclosure at Chester Zoo. In Port Lympne Reserve the same year, visitors hid in toilets while a cheetah was on the loose. And in 2013, zookeeper Sarah McClay was tragically killed at South Lakes Safari Zoo when a tiger managed to get through an unlocked gate.

Security lapses such as these can also prove deadly to the animals. Escapees were also highlighted in the reports, with one wildlife centre listing a red stag, a pig, two goats, a peacock and three alpacas as escapees in 2018 alone.

Last year we heard about the sad killing of endangered snow leopard, Margaash, at Dudley Zoo when she was shot dead after escaping her enclosure. And in 2017, Lillith the lynx was shot after leaping from a tree to escape her enclosure at Borth Zoo. Already this year endangered species have paid the biggest price for their escapes, with the deaths of the tigers earlier this month.

Campaigns Officer, Maddy Taylor commented,

“It is alarming. Given that escapes from zoos are common, sometimes involving animals who can pose serious danger to the public, these findings must be taken seriously. We must remember that escapes can also be potentially fatal to the animals fleeing from the zoos."

Many of the reports detailed suggestions for changes which had to be made within 3 months of the report. Simon Blackburn, chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board said

“Councils, vets and Defra zoo inspectors regularly carry out joint inspections of zoos to ensure they are keeping to the requirements of their licence, and if necessary, councils can move to revoke a licence where these strict conditions are not being met”.

It is clear from the information we have on zoos with repeated security lapses over the years that DEFRA does not seem to take seriously the risks involved at zoos with repeated animal escapes, or other security breaches, such as at Belfast Zoo, where multiple animals have escaped in recent years, and South Lakes Safari, where not only have animals escaped from their enclosures, but some have even been stolen by members of the public.

If zoos can not, at the very least, provide security for the animals in their care, and for the people that work at and visit the zoo, should they be open at all?