Since 1984, British zoos have been required to meet the standards set out under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Under the Act, a zoo is defined as an establishment where wild animals (those not normally domesticated in the British Isles) are kept for exhibition (except in a circus or pet shop) to which members of the public have access, with or without charge for admission, on seven or more days in a year. 

In Britain, local authorities are responsible for the licensing and inspection of zoos. Government-appointed zoo inspectors, who carry out formal inspections every three to four years, assist local authorities in considering zoo licence applications and renewals. Operating licences are renewed every six years. Zoo inspection reports should inform the local authority of the inspector’s opinion whether the zoo is meeting legislative requirements. Reports can include suggestions for improvements that should be made to the facility, and recommendations that the local authority attaches specific conditions to the zoo’s licence, which require the zoo to make compulsory improvements within a set period of time.

The Act is supplemented by the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, which sets out guidance on animal accommodation and general zoo practice. Other considerations taken into account include public safety, public facilities and staff training – all of which should be assessed during the formal inspections.

The Act places a requirement on zoos to contribute to species conservation and public education in relation to the conservation of biodiversity, either formally (through school visits and the provision of education resources and materials) or informally (through informative signage).  

The Act has been updated to reflect the requirements of the EU Zoos Directive (European Council Directive 1999/22/EC). Northern Ireland has separate legislation, where zoos are licensed under the Zoo Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003

Photos: © Britta Jaschinski, BFF / © George Logan


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