Inspectors back new licence for zoo where nearly 500 animals died within 4 years

South Lakes Safari Zoo, formally known as South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Cumbria
South Lakes Safari Zoo, formally known as South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Cumbria
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Councillors are being recommended to grant a fresh licence application for a Cumbrian zoo where almost 500 animals died within four years.

David Gill, the owner and founder of South Lakes Safari Zoo, was refused a renewal of his licence by Barrow Borough Council in March but the tourist attraction stayed open as he lodged an appeal against the decision.

Since January the zoo has been operated by Cumbria Zoo Company Limited (CZCL) and its application will be considered by members of the council's licensing regulatory committee on May 9.

Mr Gill is said to have stepped away from all trading and management activities connected with the zoo in Dalton-in-Furness.

Government inspectors are now supporting CZCL's licence bid, subject to it meeting a number of conditions, following their latest site visit.

In a report to the council, the inspectors noted: "The inspectors were impressed and highly encouraged by the improvements made since the takeover of full management since January 2017, the palpable change of culture and attitude of all staff, their level of engagement, dedication and enthusiasm, and ambitious plans to move forward now that the owner/previous director is no longer involved."

The inspectors conceded though there "might be some concern" among councillors given that the present management team and senior staff are similar to the team that worked under Mr Gill and there was no permanent suitably qualified animal manager in post.

But they added they were satisifed a robust management and staffing structure was in place with the loyalty of the keepers noted as "astonishing" and a number of specialist contractors providing assistance in the running of the zoo.

CZCL said it had advertised for the position of a full-time Animal Director and that a job offer had been made to a candidate, subject to the zoo licence being issued.

The company said it was committed to developing its "passion to make Safari Zoo a zoo that the team here can demonstrate to the world we are a positive force for change - in the care of the animals on our site, the ability to engage our guests with the natural world and our impact to make effective changes through our conservation and educational programmes".

A number of animal welfare groups continue to call for the application to be rejected.

In a response to the council, the Captive Animals' Protection Society said that many of the changes made "simply provide the bare minimum" and are "too little too late".

It said the changes should have been in place throughout the history of the zoo and since CZCL chief executive Karen Brewer had been in a management position.

The Born Free Foundation stated: "It is important to note that this is not solely a management issue that can be fixed by awarding a zoo licence to another applicant.

"Born Free calls upon Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council to take note of the previous welfare and safety issues that have occurred under the management of Ms Brewer and members of her team, and to refuse a licence to this facility."

Barrow Council's licensing officer has recommended that committee members are minded to grant a licence to CZCL for four years - subject to Mr Gill either withdrawing his own licence appeal or Mr Gill surrendering his licence.

Councillors will visit the zoo themselves on the morning of May 9 before later making their decision at Barrow Town Hall.

Mr Gill's application had been turned down in March after inspectors visited the zoo in January and were "dismayed by the obvious deficiencies in the accommodation, the overcrowding and the lack of proper welfare and husbandry''.

Inspectors said a post-mortem database, detailing the deaths of 486 animals from January 2013 to September 2016, showed "a clear picture of poor management with uncontrolled breeding and lack of any programme of preventative and curative veterinary medicine, with resultant ongoing welfare issues for the animals''.

The committee heard the animals which had died included a jaguar called Saka who had a bite wound to its paw and injuries which indicated "chronic, ongoing self-traumatisation''.

In June 2016, the zoo, opened in 1994 by Mr Gill, was fined £255,000 at Preston Crown Court after one of its employees, Sarah McClay, 24, was killed by a Sumatran tiger in May 2013.

It received an additional £42,500 fine after it also pleaded guilty to other health and safety law breaches when a zoo keeper fell from a ladder while preparing to feed big cats in July 2014.