A lifetime in lockdown


Born Free calls for overhaul and reform of out of touch laws governing zoos

Born Free is calling on the government to implement a long-overdue review and reform of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 to significantly raise the standards in the more than 300 licensed zoos in Britain.

This follows the release of their new animation – Creature Discomforts: Life in Lockdown – in which members of the public reflect on living with the covid-19 pandemic, poignantly highlighting how many wild animals will spend their whole lives behind bars. 

Born Free’s Head of Animal Welfare and Captivity, Dr. Chris Draper, said: “Britain has a large number of licensed zoos and they are a very mixed bag, from household names in metropolitan areas and safari parks, to farm parks with exotic animals, falconry centres, and more. Now that the government has made available more than £100m of taxpayers’ money to British zoos in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, Born Free is calling for an urgent review of existing legislation to make the multi-million pound zoo industry more accountable, transparent and humane.”

With the zoo industry responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of wild animals, and in light of concerns about zoos culling healthy animals, and making frequent, often unsubstantiated, conservation claims, Born Free’s reforms include:​​​​​​ 

  • Publication of zoo inspection reports and annual species stocklists, including data on causes of death. Currently, summary details of animal deaths and their causes are not required to be declared externally, while the results of zoo inspections and details of what animals are kept are only available through a complex and challenging Freedom of Information process to the 350+ local authorities in Britain who are currently responsible for licensing zoos. 
  • Greater conservation participation from zoos, and a clear, published audit of each zoo’s conservation and education commitment. While zoos have a legal obligation to participate in conservation and education, the required level is minimal and the process of assessment is neither transparent nor consistent. 
  • Centralisation of licensing of zoos, and a permanent zoo inspectorate. Currently there is no central oversight of all zoos in Britain – licences are granted, and inspections coordinated, by the hundreds of local authorities across the country. A centralised licencing body would allow for surveillance of the whole zoo sector, and avoid serious, longstanding concerns about potential conflicts of interest. A permanent inspectorate would improve consistency between inspections and also allow for more frequent inspections with proper follow-ups to ensure that mandated changes are actually completed by zoos. 
  • Changes to the Standards of Modern Zoo Practice required as a priority. The Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice provides supplementary guidelines for zoos, outlining what is expected of zoos under licence. However, not only is greater specificity urgently required to ensure more appropriate care of animals, the standards must also be legally enforceable, which is currently not the case.  
  • An assessment of medium to long-term financial viability plus mandatory zoo insurance bond in event of closure or crisis. The covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the financial fragility of zoos. A number of zoos have recently claimed they are considering culling animals because they can no longer afford to keep them – a situation that may get significantly worse as winter approaches and visitor numbers dwindle. The government has already earmarked £114m of taxpayer’s money to provide temporary relief for British zoos, however, a regular financial assessment and a business health check should form a key part of the licensing and inspection process. Operating a zoo is a costly long-term commitment. Zoo licensees are responsible for the lives of each animal within their care and they should have the funds, as part of a well thought-through business plan, to ensure that, should the zoo fall on hard times, the animal collection can be carefully and humanely rehomed and the facility closed. Mandatory payment into a Zoo Insurance Bond (similar to the travel industry’s ATOL bond) should be a key requirement for anyone operating a zoo. 

Dr Draper continues: “When it was enacted in the 1980s, the Zoo Licensing Act was a progressive step to provide a minimum level of protection for animals in zoos, but time has marched on and it is clear that more is now needed; not only to meet the complex needs of wild animals in zoos, and to avert an animal welfare crisis if and when zoos close, but also to match public expectations of the role of zoos, allowing people to make clear judgements about whether zoos are – or are not – contributing meaningfully to conservation and education.”