I’m not a big fan of zoos. I’ll tolerate them if they demonstrate a genuine conservation role, but those institutions are few and far between in my experience. Many tick a few of the virtue signalling boxes, but in general I think wild animals are better off in the wild.
I certainly have no time for institutions that serve up animals to be gawped at by the paying public just to make money for the zoo operators, and after watching the BBC 2 documentary ‘Trouble at the Zoo’ on Thursday night, it would seem the South Lakes Safari Zoo might fit into that category.
The park has had a troubled history since it was founded by entrepreneur David Gill in 1994 . Soon thereafter a rhino had to be shot after escaping its enclosure and in 2015 they were fined for accidentally releasing an invasive species of bird into the local area. There have also been other animal escapes and safety concerns about interactions with the animals and the visiting public.
Further controversy arose around the death of keeper Sarah McClay in 2013, mauled by a tiger, apparently due to poor maintenance on a faulty enclosure door. There have also been nearly 500 animal deaths reported on the site in less than four years, including the loss of endangered species such as snow leopards from avoidable causes such as emaciation, overcrowding, hypothermia and apparent cannibalism.
Other incidents have included an electrocuted tortoise and a decomposed monkey carcass found behind a radiator. The Captive Animals’ Protection Society has condemned the zoo as one of the worst they have ever seen.
Mr Gill eventually lost his licence to operate the park in 2017 and The Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd was formed by management staff to keep the park open. Headed up by CEO Karen Brewer, the company was granted its own licence to operate with animal director Andreas Kaufmann being appointed as one of the compulsory requirements.
The BBC documentary gave us a shocking insight into an organisation that appeared to be balancing on a knife edge of profitability, putting animals and perhaps visitors lives at risk as they struggle to cover their overheads.
Whilst the staff appear genuinely caring, they’re seemingly fighting a losing battle. At one point we see a keeper retrieving the body of a young cub and she’s obviously upset, but sadly this looks like a regular occurrence.
It’s clear that management acumen is in short supply. The impression is one of a team of enthusiastic but ill-equipped amateurs, desperately trying to keep the place afloat. A view reinforced by an apparent threat to strike the company off earlier this year after they failed to submit returns to Companies House on time. It was also revealed that a slew of directors had previously resigned.
At one point we’re shown a board meeting, although anyone who has ever been on the board of a company would have a hard time recognising it as such. Someone raises the issue of their Tripadvisor reviews where apparently ‘not enough animals’ is the most common complaint, to which Kaufmann replies “They come here and they’re falling over animals!”. That’s not something you doubt after watching the programme, but not in a good way. One imagines you’d be falling over plenty of them, many of them having fallen over dead themselves the day before.
Indeed it’s the death of one of their main attractions, a four year old African lion called Nero, that the documentary focussed on. Initially seen comatose in his enclosure, attempts are made to revive him before he eventually worsens and dies. An investigation into the cause is launched, but some time later no firm conclusions have been drawn or apparently any steps taken to prevent a recurrence.
There’s since been speculation that the animal was inadvertently poisoned by meat contaminated with barbiturates, the most likely cause of the contamination being from a euthanised carcass in the food supply. High doses of such drugs are often used in the euthanasia process, but this renders the flesh of the animal unfit for consumption. The suspicion is that some may have slipped through.
Seeing more of the meat being unloaded certainly reinforces that view. It looks truly horrendous. Blackened, bloody, possibly filthy and apparently unrefrigerated. No doubt bought on the cheap due to the financial pressures on the business, and of course you get what you pay for. I know it’s not prime cuts for human consumption, but I’ve seen carcasses being given to big cats in wildlife parks and I’ve never seen anything that looks as rank as this.
Unbelievably though, it seems that the zoo still continues to source it’s feed from the same supplier while the remains of the suspect meat given to Nero sits in a freezer awaiting analysis. One suspects the reason behind the delay is the management team’s reluctance to release news of the death of a popular animal, presumably as they know it will once again put them at the centre of a welfare scandal. They explain during the programme that they’re not announcing Nero’s death until they know what caused it, but they didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to find out.
Kaufmann comments that while they continue to use the same meat supply, something similar could happen again. Apparently acknowledging that they’re playing Russian roulette with the lives of the animals in their care. I understand one of the main issues he has had with the park management during his tenure has been the standard of the feed. He certainly doesn’t seem happy about it during the programme and judging from comments in the Twittersphere, whilst the programme was being broadcast and since, neither are many others.
Quite why the zoo agreed to the programme being made at all is beyond me as it certainly does them no favours. Perhaps it was for the publicity, maybe to inspire sympathy for their plight, or as one last roll of the dice to shake things up. But in truth it looks like another example of spectacularly poor management and an apparent disconnect from reality. Knowing the way these things go, I doubt they’ll survive the damage that this programme will wreak for very long.
In the final frames we hear from Karen Brewer herself explaining why they keep going. “The goal is to keep people’s jobs” she says, and I don’t doubt her concern. But even though I hate to see anyone lose their job, I hate to see an animal suffer or lose its life just as much, especially rare and endangered animals that could be looked after much more effectively in another facility. Equally I don’t want to see a member of the public or staff injured or killed due to another incident of poor maintenance or neglect.
The job losses will be a shame, but it’s clear that for everyone’s safety, not least that of the animals, this park needs to be closed and the residents transferred somewhere more professionally run. Carnage and chaos on this scale simply cannot be justified just to keep a few zookeepers in regular employment, no matter how well intentioned they are.