Dublin Zoo – concerns revisited one year on

24 July 2023


It is one year since the Irish zoo inspectorate announced its decision to investigate Dublin Zoo, following accusations of animal welfare and management failings by whistleblowers consisting of past and current zoo employees. Born Free’s Captivity Research Officer, Chris Lewis, looks back on what followed and what lessons need to be learned.

A photo of Sulawesi Crested Macaques at Dublin ZooTwo rare Sulawesi crested macaques died after escaping from their enclosure at Dublin Zoo in 2021.

Born Free's Captivity Research Officer, Chris Lewis

Captivity Research Officer, Chris Lewis

In July 2022, Senator Annie Hoey used parliamentary privilege to release details of whistleblower complaints and accusations in the Irish Seanad. This, along with media pressure, somewhat forced the hand of the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) into conducting an inspection of the zoo from July to October 2022. It resulted in what appeared to be a rather impressive and complex looking 251-page report containing graphs, flowcharts, graphics and assessments, which Dublin Zoo and the media seemed to claim cleared the zoo of all wrongdoing in January 2023. The Irish Times published an article with the headline “Allegations of neglect against Dublin Zoo found to be untrue,” while RTE’s headline read “No evidence of welfare breaches at Dublin Zoo”.

In short, the report concluded “Only three of the twenty-three allegations were supported, two of which were historical and had been addressed, with the third being questionable as to whether it was a welfare issue in the first instance”. A statement by Dublin Zoo stated that “it has been determined by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) that there is no evidence to support the allegations of ongoing serious welfare breaches at Dublin Zoo.”

On face value, it would appear a thorough investigation took place which reached conclusive outcomes. However, a closer look at the inspection report reveals instances where the actual findings do not seem to reflect the outcomes.

The tragic case of Niko, the Californian sea lion is a case in point. The allegation was that Niko was left with no access to water on one of the hottest days of year and subsequently died. The report finds that Niko was “separated in a pen with no water or sprinkler despite being available, was left in [the] pen for 5 hours, minimal checks, found dead. Considered keeper error”. This resulted in a ruling that a “number of failings [were] noted on the day”, and that Niko was for an “excessive period locked in with no water [which] failed to meet welfare needs”. In short, the report states Dublin Zoo failed to meet the welfare needs of Niko.

When you re-read Dublin Zoo’s statement you may now notice the very inconspicuous but also carefully placed use of the word “ongoing”. Let’s be clear, the report highlights serious welfare breaches but not ones that were ongoing. Therefore, the zoo may not have lied, but it has been careful with the truth, while avoiding any acknowledgement of what has apparently happened at the zoo historically and was consequently found within the report.

The report also highlighted “numerous failings in husbandry provision during 2019 to 2020” in relation to the sea lions and their diet. Analysis of records found that another sea lion that had aborted its pup was found to have “low weight at the time the pup was aborted, staff had failed to weigh her (others were weighed during this time), failed to recognise she was pregnant, and failed to identify that she was the mother that had aborted until June 2020 – numerous errors in management in this case and failure to follow the limited protocols in place”. As with the case of Niko, the fact that this incident occurred in the past and not at the time of inspection appears to have enabled the zoo to escape any punishment, despite the severity of the issues. One must wonder if a member of the public kept two dogs and one died of neglect, whether they would be allowed to avoid punishment if they were found to be keeping the second in better conditions since the first one’s demise.

Other instances which were deemed by inspectors to be ‘unfounded’ seem to place an overemphasis on the wording of the whistleblower’s account/description and overlook other issues which were uncovered. For example, Harry, a Western lowland gorilla was noted within the report as being obese, two Sulawesi crested macaques drowned in their moat after escaping in 2021, a citron-crested cockatoo escaped its aviary and is presumed dead, “numerous issues” have occurred with one of the zoo’s filtration systems, and claims of inbreeding within the zoo’s scimitar-horned oryx were deemed unfounded as “only 2” were considered to be inbred rather than the alleged nine! The situation could be likened the police investigating one crime, finding another, and doing nothing about it.

The report echoes similar conclusions of a conflicted British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), following whistleblower allegations at Blair Drummond Safari Park, Scotland, in 2021. The zoo was cleared by the association with the complaints dismissed as “historical”. In both of these situations, the cases now sadly seem to be closed and almost forgotten, but what can be learned from all of these failings and associated suffering?

Both cases highlighted examples where there appeared to be grounds for prosecution under the relevant nation’s Animal Welfare Act (Health and Welfare in Ireland). Yet this is a route infrequently taken. A patchwork of legislation, standards and guidelines currently covers zoos, and it is often enforced by those with a clear conflict of interest. Such circumstances also appear to send the message to zoos that as long as they are not committing any animal welfare breaches at the time of the inspection, what took place the previous month or the previous year doesn’t matter. So long as they have ‘learnt’ from what happened. Does this seem appropriate when such institutions are supposed to put animal welfare at the forefront of everything they do? Will the outcomes of these situations instil confidence in other whistleblowers to risk coming forward in the future?

While zoo licensing is slightly different in Ireland, self-regulation by a part-time zoo inspectorate within the UK continues to fail to effectively implement the current zoo licensing standards or ensure non-compliance is successfully rectified by local authorities who vary widely in their understanding and implementation of the relevant legislation.

Born Free has long called for a thorough shake-up of the zoo licensing and inspection process, including the creation of a full-time, centralised and fully independent zoo inspectorate. Until such a time comes, we fear similar incidents of animal neglect and mismanagement may continue to occur and go unpunished, with news of such incidents never leaving the confines of the zoo perimeter.

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Images: © Tambako The Jaguar (Flickr) / © Willard (Flickr)