Too close for comfort

A recent Sunday Times article (“Wildlife park lets you pet tiger for £160”, 13/01/08 by Daniel Foggo and Holly Watt) exposing the ‘close encounter’ tiger feeding at Paradise Wildlife Park raises many disturbing questions.Following the tragic fatality of a young man following a tiger escape in San Francisco Zoo and the fatal injury to a man in India who had his left arm ripped off through the bars by a captive tiger – both in December 2007 – people are asking: Could such a tragic accident happen here?

Daniel Foggo’s investigation leads me to one conclusion. I think that the answer is yes.

This is not an ‘arms length’ experience. It is very up-close and personal. There is direct contact, fingers and small hands can get through the wire and, it seems from the zoo’s website, so can claws. One slip, one snagged tooth or claw, even a tiger managing to grab the dangling scarf (as worn by one of the people pictured in the Sunday Times report) of a fee-paying guest runs an appalling risk and, as the incident in India shows, even an injury can lead to death.

But apart from the very obvious and wholly unacceptable risk to human safety that I believe this activity represents, Daniel Foggo’s investigation reveals some alarming facts.

Andrew Greenwood, an experienced wildlife vet, Government-appointed Zoo Inspector and member of the Zoos Forum, admits that he was not aware of ‘anywhere in Britain offering such intimate encounters with tigers’. My question is: Why not? The Zoos Forum is supposed to guide the Government on matters to do with zoos. If the Zoos Forum and one of its most senior members doesn’t know about hand-feeding then the Government doesn’t either. As such, both the Government and the Zoos Forum are failing in their responsibilities.

East Hertfordshire Council, which is supposed to inspect the zoo and license it, is, according to the Sunday Times report, “unable to comment on this specific case”. Why not? The zoo is licensed by them and quite clearly they are supposed to ensure that the highest possible levels of public safety are guaranteed. Have they knowingly been permitting these feeding sessions? Who advises them? Who carried out the inspections that have allowed this to continue?

The Zoo Spokesman states that there had never been an incident in the years they have been offering the activity and that some of the money raised from it went towards conservation projects. What comfort are we supposed to draw from that? In my view the zoo has been lucky, incredibly lucky that nothing has gone amiss so far – it only needs to happen once. And that some of the funds go to conservation is irrelevant. It in no way excuses or justifies potentially putting lives on the line.

The assertion that these are hand-reared animals (even if, in the same breath we are told that one of them “does not like people very much”) makes no difference. These are wild animals. The fact that they have been hand-reared may, in reality, cause humans to be less cautious, less risk averse than they should be, believing perhaps that these “tame” cats are not as dangerous. On this Andrew Greenwood is right. Effectively all captive wild animals such as tigers are dangerous.

Born Free has been monitoring the captive conditions for wild animals in UK zoos for over 20 years. We have brought numerous instances of inappropriate human behaviour and unacceptable levels of risk to the attention of Licensing Authorities time and time again. We had hoped that the Zoos Forum established about 10 years ago would have addressed these shortcomings and failings long ago but obviously not.

Born Free Foundation is urgently calling for action before there is a tragedy:

  1. A review of the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice (SSSMZP) – the document that is supposed to guide zoo inspectors, zoos and Local Authorities on the application of the Zoo Licensing Act (1981) and the European Zoos Directive. (The minutes of the last Zoos Forum (27 Sept 2007) meeting indicate that, in the opinion of the Forum members, it was safe to put any review of the SSSMZP on hold “for the long term”)
  2. An independent evaluation of the workings of the Zoos Forum, in particular its ability to provide the Government with timely, independent and robust advice on the operation of zoos, in particular in relation to animal welfare and human safety.
  3. A full review of the Guidance Circulars sent by Defra to Local Licensing Authorities relating to zoos. Are these being understood and implemented fully? (According to the minutes of the last Zoos Forum meeting (27 Sept 2007), Defra reported that there had been no progress on amendments to the Circular since 23 Jan 2007).
  4. The establishment of a proper national database of zoos including amongst other matters information relating to: the animal species (and numbers thereof) that are held, license information, improvements required by the licensing system and when they are completed, incidents relating to public safety including animal escapes, human injuries, human fatalities, animal injuries and animal fatalities, instances of disease (in humans and animals), and the conservation and education benefits delivered by zoos. This database should be a matter of public record. No such comprehensive national database exists at the present time.
  5. An immediate halt to all close encounter sessions with any species that are listed on the current Schedule of Dangerous Wild Animals (Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976), or as Category 1 (Greater Risk) on Appendix 12 of the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

Blogging off..


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