Barrow Council reveal South Lakes Safari Zoo inspection outcome

17 February 2023


While Born Free welcomes some aspects of report, flawed inspection process may have hindered inspector’s findings.

A photo of two rhinos at South Lakes Safari Zoo

The findings of Barrow Council’s Special Inspection of South Lakes Safari Zoo, Cumbria, carried out on 17th November 2022, were finally revealed at the council’s licensing committee meeting on 16th February. The inspection was instigated following Born Free’s own investigation at the zoo on the 17th October, which itself was prompted by 13 public complaints through our Raise the Red Flag campaign. Complaints had also been made directly to Barrow Council.

The inspection report outlines that the zoo has failed to meet the welfare needs of its rhinos, has a significant rodent problem, and has flooding issues in its Africa House, all of which were highlighted by Born Free. The report also highlights the ongoing failure by the zoo to address the Direction order attached to their licence to tackle the flooding issue, which results in sodden ground during wet weather conditions which can be “detrimental to the animals”. We are also pleased to hear that, despite refuting our findings in the media, the zoo has undertaken repairs to some areas of the zoo which we identified prior to Barrow Council’s inspection, such as holes in their mesh boardwalks.

Regarding the rhinos, the inspection report notes: “The Africa house and in particular the outdoor enclosure are not suited for keeping these animals and this problem has been exacerbated by the zoo breeding more animals that have not been rehomed. The result is a situation effectively worse than that found during the March 2021 formal inspection, when it was determined, and the decision agreed by the Zoo Licence Holder, that their welfare needs were not being met.”

The report goes on to state: “The inspection on 17th November 2022 highlighted that the zoo licence holder had failed to comply with the following licence condition in the time specified:

2. Accommodate and keep the animals in a manner consistent with the standards set out in the Secretary of State’s standards of Modern Zoo practice.

However, despite the identification of this significant welfare issue, the zoo has been given a one-year reprieve to provide all of their rhinos with suitable access to grazing and exercise areas.

Chris Lewis, Captivity Research Officer at Born Free commented: “We are pleased that the council has agreed with our concerns in regard to the current housing of the zoo’s rhinos, especially considering the zoo has let the animals breed once again, increasing the total to nine. However, under the council’s current suggested timeline, these animals could be housed in the same conditions which have been determined to not meet their welfare needs for another year! This situation must be rectified as a matter of urgency.”

In many respects, the council inspection team appear to downplay the findings of Born Free’s investigation, which we suspect is due to a lack of context for the evidence we provided to Barrow Council. At no point have Barrow Council approached Born Free to request additional information or details of when our investigation began and ended. For the purposes of clarity, our visit to the zoo on the 17th October began at 10.20am and ended at 15.30 (a total time of 5hrs 10mins). Serious welfare issues such as the inadequate lighting for tortoises, the unsuitable honey badger enclosure, housing temperatures and enclosure maintenance were not referenced in the council’s report, suggesting they may not have been part of the inspection.

The council’s report reveals that representatives of the zoo’s landlord, the Zoo Investment Company (ZIC), have been inspecting the zoo on a weekly basis and raising their own animal welfare concerns. Their inspections have been undertaken by a vet and, on two occasions, by a Secretary of State appointed zoo inspector, details of which are provided as an appendix to the report. Their concerns not only corroborate the findings of our investigation but also highlight that the issues at the zoo have been present since at least June 2021 and reported to the council on a regular basis. Concerningly, the findings made by a Secretary of State appointed zoo inspector during an unofficial, unannounced visit appear to be very different from those made during the announced visit by the council.

Chris Lewis continued: “The prior warning given to zoos by local authorities before inspections occur remains a major concern and may have resulted in a number of issues being hidden by the zoo. The temerity of the zoo to say our findings were unfounded is shocking, considering the outcomes of our investigation and the ZIC and council’s inspections, and demonstrates a brazen disregard not only for the standards required of zoos, but also the welfare of the animals in their care. It leaves us with little optimism that conditions for the animals at the zoo are likely to improve any time soon.”

Since our visit in October 2022, the zebra, which apparently could not share an enclosure with the rhinos, died suddenly. Additional animal welfare concerns continue to be raised by members of the public through our Raise the Red Flag campaign – totalling 11 complaints since our visit, including concerns about the zoo management’s continued insistence on hosting firework displays within the grounds of the zoo. Shockingly, the zoo recently admitted hosting 30 such events since 2017.

The minutes of a Barrow Council Licensing Regulatory Sub-Committee meeting on the 29th of April 2021 state that “the animals in the zoo belonged to ZIC, or were on loan from other collections, but were managed on a day-to-day basis by CZCL [South Lakes Safari Zoo].”

Born Free calls on the Zoo Investment Company to take immediate action to begin the process of finding alternative homes for the zoo’s rhinos that will provide them with the best care possible.

The situation at South Lakes Safari Zoo once again highlights the need for improved zoo legislation and standards within the UK, along with a review of the zoo inspection process itself. We urge all political parties to support the passage of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill which includes measures to amend the Zoo Licensing Act and make compliance with the associated standards a licensing condition for zoos. This, along with a raft of transformative changes to wildlife policy and legislation, are outlined in Born Free’s recently released UK Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Manifesto – ‘Transforming Wildlife Protection in the UK’.