Safari Zoo is granted licence

Councillors heard that Mr Gill had stepped away from all trading and management activities connected with the zoo.
Councillors heard that Mr Gill had stepped away from all trading and management activities connected with the zoo.
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A Cumbrian zoo where almost 500 animals died within four years can stay open after councillors granted it a licence.

Two months ago a similar application from David Gill, the owner and founder of South Lakes Safari Zoo, was unanimously rejected after Government inspectors pointed out concerns over its management structure and veterinary care which it labelled "inadequate".

But Tuesday's application from Cumbria Zoo Company Limited (CZCL), which has operated the zoo since January, was approved after licensing committee members in Barrow-in-Furness were told the same inspection team was "highly encouraged" by improvements made under a new management team.

Councillors heard that Mr Gill had stepped away from all trading and management activities connected with the zoo.

But the inspectors had conceded there "might be some concern" that the present management team headed by chief executive Karen Brewer and senior staff were similar to the same team that worked under Mr Gill.

Ms Brewer told the hearing at Barrow Town Hall that it was "a new zoo" and it was the first time before the committee that she could "truly say these are my own thoughts rather than that of my previous employer".

She said the independent inspection team had recognised "significant" improvements in animal welfare, husbandry and veterinary care", and that the hard work of "dedicated, enthusiastic and passionate" staff members had paid off.

The committee granted the licence to CZCL - subject to Mr Gill either withdrawing his own licence appeal or surrendering his licence.

CZCL must also ensure an animal director or equivalent is appointed on a full-time basis and must have the ability to make decisions independent of the registered land owner.

The zoo has remained open during the appeal process.

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.

Following the committee's decision, Miss McClay's mother, Fiona, from Linlithgow, said: "What we have heard in the chamber is that the council will keep a very close eye that Mr Gill has nothing to do with the running of the zoo.

"We heard more than enough evidence to the licensing committee given by the experts and the person appointed as the new director that there will be not just be one person making all the decisions.

"I think it's a positive step for Furness and the zoo. We were never for closure of the zoo, we were for the health and safety of staff and the animals.

"That clearly was not in place when my daughter died and I think we have seen today that things are going to be put into place - and if not, we will be back here, won't we."

Miss McClay's sister, Lucy, who also attended the hearing, said: "We maintain that we never wanted the zoo to close.

"We just wanted it to be safe for everyone who works there and everyone who visits, but it seems now that David Gill will not be involved. That's hopefully a step in the right direction."

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''.

But the inspectors - Nick Jackson, director of the Welsh Mountain Zoo, Professor Anna Meredith and the borough council's veterinary adviser, Dr Matthew Brash - had also indicated in January that great strides had been made in many areas of the zoo.

Following another site visit in March they concluded sufficient changes were in place so they could be satisfied that modern zoo practices could be met and that accommodation and staffing or management was adequate for the proper well-being of the animals.

The Captive Animals' Protection Society (Caps) spoke out against the application at the meeting.

Maddy Taylor, from Caps, said the organisation was "disappointed" that councillors were being recommended to grant a four-year licence to CZCL.

The society said recent changes at the zoo "are too little too late" and should have been in place throughout the history and since Ms Brewer had been in a management position.

Ms Taylor told committee members that responsibility for past problems could not be "solely placed at the feet" of Mr Gill.

She said: "Some improvements may have been made in recent months, but it is not a new zoo. There is a history of suffering and neglect.

"It is clear that the right thing to do by the animals, whose lives are at stake here, is to refuse the applicant."

Three ex-members of staff at the zoo had come forward to the society to express their concerns, she said, and a total of more than 270,000 people had signed two petitions which called for the zoo to close.

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 new licence holders for the zoo, which attracts up to 300,000 visitors per year, hope to buy the business from Mr Gill.

An investigation by the RSPCA into historical animal welfare at the zoo and potential offences under the Animal Welfare Act is ongoing.