‘You’d come in and think, what’s dead or escaped?’: inside Britain’s most controversial zoo

Last summer inspectors revealed that nearly 500 animals had died in a three-year period. Can a new team turn South Lakes Safari around?

Its 2pm at South Lakes Safari zoo. Free entry! reads the cheerful banner tacked on to the rustic wooden entrance gate. Hand feed a baby giraffe! But these enticements seem to have missed their mark today: Im the only visitor. The enormous gift shop filled mostly with stuffed animals is empty of humans. The 20 family meal deals at the Maki zoo restaurant remain untouched. I trudge up the long, circular path, past sodden vultures hunched behind coiled barbed wire, pacing big cats and many upbeat, brightly coloured signs telling me the names all the animals have been given. The zoos miniature train is not in operation today, due to a lack of passengers.

Why is no one here? Perhaps because its a rainy, grey Wednesday in March. More likely, though, its the unsettling reports that have been appearing since last June.

When the zoos licence came up for renewal last summer, government inspectors revealed that 486 animals had died between December 2013 and September 2016, many of them in cruel circumstances. The zoo had already been in the headlines because, on 24 May 2013, a 23-year-old zookeeper, Sarah McClay, was mauled to death by a Sumatran tiger; the following year, the zoo was fined 255,500 plus fees by the courts for the health and safety breaches that resulted in her death. David Gill, the 55-year-old millionaire who founded the 50-acre zoo in 1994, was not personally found guilty.

Among the animal deaths highlighted by the inspectors last year were: two baby snow leopards, Miska and Natasja, found partially eaten by other leopards in their enclosure; a rhino crushed to death by its partner; a dead squirrel monkey stuck behind a radiator; an African spurred tortoise that had been electrocuted when it became entangled in electric fencing. Poison used to treat rat infestations had led to the death of two (unspecified) zoo animals. Lemurs and birds had been run over and killed by the miniature train. Visitors had sustained monkey bites.

The council demanded a more detailed inventory of animal deaths: inspectors found in the first six months of 2016 alone, five inca terns had died from exposure, an alpaca from hypothermia, a lemur drowned, a bird had been euthanised after its beak was broken by a macaw; 13 other animals had died from trauma, and three from starvation. A jaguar named Saka had chewed off its own paw after damaging it on broken glass and exposed nails. Gills lawyer said his client no longer wanted to run the facility, but did not want it to close before a new company had a licence approved.

In the same month the report was published, the Captive Animals Protection Society visited the zoo and published photographs of an emaciated kangaroo and penguins sweltering in the 29C summer heat in an empty pool.

Penguins shelter in an empty pool last summer. Photograph: Captive Animals Protection Society

Horrified members of the public in the UK and US set up petitions to close the zoo. RSPCA inspectors obtained a search warrant; they are still compiling a report of their findings. South Lakes was debated in parliament, with Andrew Rosindell, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on zoos, calling on the government to launch an inquiry. In March, the council that had granted Gill his licence every six years since 1994 turned down his application, with government inspectors citing overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and any sort of developed veterinary care. Gill, concluded the inspectors, was not a fit and suitable person to run a zoo.

But he appealed and the zoo stayed open under emergency measures, with management handed over to a newly formed group, Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd, who had been running the zoo since January. The new chief executive, Karen Brewer, had also served as chief executive under Gill. On 9 May, Barrow council voted to grant the company a four-year licence, after inspectors gave glowing reports of how the zoo had already been turned around.

It looked like a new dawn for the animals of South Lakes zoo, but for months I had been investigating disconcerting rumours about the new management.


Born and bred in Barrow-in-Furness, David Gill is a self-styled wrangler; the type often found working with tigers and crocodiles on TV or hunting them down on safari. His father was a local magistrate, his mother a confectioner. He started collecting animals as a child, claiming people would travel for miles to see Daltons Doctor Doolittle with his raccoons, goats and wallabies.

In 1994, Barrow council granted him a zoo licence and Gill opened the park in Dalton-in-Furness, a neglected Cumbrian semi-peninsula. Over 22 years, the park grew, now housing around 1,500 animals (there has never been an official head count, even though they are mandatory under the Zoo Licensing Act ). By 2014, the zoo was bringing in 250,000 visitors a year and generating 3m.

Zoo founder David Gill. In March, inspectors declared him not a fit person to run a zoo.

Three years after opening the zoo, Gill left his wife and two children for a 16-year-old zoo keeper whom he later married. After they split, he had two children with another zoo keeper. In 2008, his affair with a married woman ended when her jealous husband was jailed for stabbing Gill in the neck. Gill is now married to a former beauty queen from Peru, Frieda Rivera Schreiber, whom he made vet coordinator at South Lakes soon after their wedding in 2014. She has never held a British veterinary licence and her Peruvian vets licence was declared void in her home country.

Gills zoo faced problems as early as 1997, when Zimba, a rare three-tonne white rhino, escaped from its enclosure into a car park, fell into a ditch and was shot dead. Gill was fined 10,000 by Kendal magistrates court for endangering the public and failing to have adequate barriers. In 2001, a former employee, Lara Kitson, sued for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination. She had expressed concerns about handling raw meat and climbing a high ladder to feed the big cats while heavily pregnant; Gill had allegedly asked whether she wanted to continue with the pregnancy. He denies this, saying he didnt know she was pregnant. The tribunal ruled in her favour and awarded her 30,000 in compensation.

Despite these setbacks, Gill opened another zoo, in Queensland, Australia, in 2004. But the 80-acre Mareeba Wild Animal Park shut just five months later, after Queensland authorities, flanked by a TV crew, carried out a dawn raid, looking for evidence of animal cruelty and permit breaches. Gill claimed it was a set-up by an incompetent local authority, but the case reached the Australian parliament. The zoo went into receivership for two years and eventually found another buyer.

Gill was charged with animal cruelty, failure to pay his debts and licensing and planning irregularities, and later fined A$10,000 (5,730). But by that time hed left the country. Gill told the North-West Evening Mail the three charges were technical in nature and related only to not reporting events rather than the events themselves.

Animals they can make money from lemurs, camels, giraffes have the greatest chance of being fed, a former employee says. Photograph: Alamy

In Britain, he landed back on his feet. Four days after Mareeba zoo was debated in the Australian parliament, an article in the Westmorland Gazette celebrated Gills plans for a massive expansion of South Lakes Wild Animal Park, including going into great apes, gorillas and orangutans.

The trail of disasters continued too long to list in full here, but recorded in the zoo inspectors mandatory yearly reports, the minutes of Barrow council licensing committee meetings and, very occasionally, the local press. In August 2006, an escaped South American goat was captured using a tranquilliser dart after it wandered into a garden. The following month, a government inspector said escapes were a matter for concern and recommended procedures to prevent animals using an overhead walkway as an escape route. In 2008, a fire killed 30 lemurs. In 2010, a capuchin monkey escaped for five days and was recaptured in a church; two months later, the council renewed Gills six-year zoo licence.

In 2012, after the zoo recorded its busiest year ever (60,000 visitors in a month), Gill received planning permission to expand. Two prohibition notices the council slapped on the zoo at that time, over a lack of hand-washing facilities and the display of snakes in the eating area, seemed not to be a cause for concern, especially to Gill, who celebrated his 51st birthday with a self-published autobiography, Nine Lives: One Mans Insatiable Journey Through Love, Life And Near Death.

How can all of this happen and he still have a licence? asks Wendy Husband, whose zoo consultancy was asked to clear up the mess in Australia. She has been closely following Gills progress in the UK: In Australia, hed be shut down. He should have been watched more closely. It seems he was given free rein.

Husband describes what happened after Gill abandoned Mareeba. It was really shocking to the community, she says. He had charmed them all. He left without paying the local people who had built the zoo. But they were amazing. They organised themselves into a base of volunteers [to keep the zoo open]. They helped provide food; farmers would provide meat. Every day, wed get fresh fruit delivered, avocados.

Many of her observations echo the inspectors reports on South Lakes. The Mareeba zoo looked good but it was poorly built and dangerous. Its a cyclone region: the fences didnt hold up to that.

So how, despite so many failures and warnings, did South Lakes zoo stay open? Barrow borough council, which repeatedly reissued its licence, does not respond. I call three times in two days. The third time, the operator tells me, Weve been instructed not to put through anyone calling about South Lakes.


In May 2013, Fiona McClay was on holiday in her native Scotland, when her sister, who she was with, began getting messages on her phone. We were in Edinburgh, McClay says. I didnt have internet on my phone, but my sister did and she started getting urgent Facebook messages. The zoo didnt hold next-of-kin contact numbers and Gill was away. He had gone to one of those medieval re-enactment weekends in Derby. A member of staff was trying to find me on Facebook. McClay called the police. She was told her daughter had been seriously injured and was unconscious. She had been airlifted to Preston hospital. The sisters drove as fast as they could, but by the time they reached her, Sarah had died.

When your daughter goes to work at a zoo, you assume shell be protected: keeper Sarah McClay, who was killed by a tiger. Photograph:

Initially, McClay was told that Sarah, who worked as a carer for the big cats, had been killed by a tiger because she hadnt followed protocol and had walked into the enclosure. Gill told the press she had made an unwise and baffling mistake. It took three years for the truth to come out at inquest: Sarah was in a staff corridor next to the tiger enclosure when the tiger attacked and mauled her a bolt on a gate was defective.

McClay has a picture of Sarah on the swings at the zoo as a child; South Lakes was the job of her dreams. She studied conservation science at university and had been working at the zoo for two years when she died. You assume when your daughter goes to work at a zoo, shell be protected, McClay says.

She heard nothing from Gill when her daughter died, she says. Staff told her hed initially banned them from attending the funeral. (Gill denies this, and says in his recollection, she was contacted by him.) Three weeks ago, Brewer approached her about setting up a memorial in Sarahs name, but McClay found the suggestion inappropriate.

She now campaigns for changes in zoo legislation. There needs to be a central body monitoring zoos, undercover inspections, higher minimum safety standards, and the police should have the power to shut a zoo down. Telling a zoo, Oh, you need to do something isnt good enough. Barrow council will never close down South Lakes, McClay says. No matter what. It brings in too much revenue.


Barrow council still wont take my calls, but I finally hear from someone who knows the zoo and wants to talk to me. It became very evident very quickly that things werent right, a former South Lakes keeper says, agreeing to talk on condition of anonymity. He came to the zoo with extensive animal training and more than 10 years experience in animal welfare: It takes a lot a lot to shock me, he says. There was no committee or board, so the management had complete power and control. The food was inadequate. On a daily basis, I had to go down to the supermarkets to pick up out-of-date leftovers. The baboons were being fed Danish pastries and other cakes, and all the bread left behind in the rhino enclosure. The birds would get dog biscuits. The white gibbons would be living on a diet of 50% seed, not 70 to 80% fruit and vegetables thats what it said they were getting on the signs outside the enclosure. When I threw out some rotting ham and eggs, another member of staff rummaged through the bins and reported me for wasting food.

Three tortoises died during his short tenure, including Goliath, the one who was electrocuted. I emailed David Gill and Karen Brewer at least three times. I tried to explain tortoises need very high temperatures and UV. They couldnt keep warm, so couldnt metabolise their food and were probably suffering from malnutrition. But Gill said hed kept tortoises for 20 years and it was fine to keep them outside in the British summer.

The former keeper says he never saw evidence of vaccination or worming treatments. A dead reindeer was fed to the big cats. Lemurs would access the tiger enclosure and get killed. When an animal died, there was no real procedure. Without a British vets licence, Schreiber is not supposed to carry out surgery, but this years inspections discovered she had carried out 150 postmortems. Gill says her role was administrative and did not involve veterinary procedures on any live animal. He adds that all postmortems were authorised by the zoo vets, then checked by the vets and signed off.

It became very evident very quickly that things werent right, a former keeper says of the zoo, pictured in March. Photograph: Mark Pinder for the Guardian

The former employee remembers seeing Schreiber carrying out a postmortem on an antelope in the meat prep area. Id see kangaroos, just skin and bones. Staff with no training, no clue. The enclosures were filthy. It was depressing. Youd come in in the morning and think, Whats dead or escaped?

He finally resigned, shaken, after two brown spider monkeys attacked a third, Pablo, and ripped his face to bits. Pablo was stitched up a bit and put in a separate area, but they just left him there for days. I repeatedly asked why they werent putting him somewhere safe. He died of septicaemia.

Witnessing all this, he says, makes you feel responsible, so you feel part of the crime, and because of that people shut down. Death becomes the norm. Does he have faith in the new company? Its basically a rotten apple, and even if you take out the core, its still a rotten apple.


I speak to another whistleblower, this time on the record. James Potter is adamant that things havent changed under the new management. On 23 March, Potter, who had worked at the zoo for two years, marched into Barrow town hall and delivered a three-page typed statement detailing all the malpractices he says he witnessed, nearly all of which have taken place since Brewer took charge in January: If anything, its worse now.

Potter started out as a volunteer a couple of days a week, helping clean paths and other odd jobs. It felt like a dream when South Lakes then hired him to work full-time as an animal carer: preparing food for the animals in the mornings, dealing with pest control in the afternoons. Then I found out what it was actually like.

Potters statement details the events of the past four months: an enormous rat infestation; how he was regularly told to use poison in areas where it was not safe to do so. He reveals how unnecessary deaths at the zoo are continuing: Under the new managements orders, in the early months of the year I was instructed to reduce the food for the female babirusa (an endangered species of pig native to Indonesia) because they thought she was getting too fat. It turned out she was pregnant. She had her baby recently, and that baby is now dead after being removed from its mother at a few days old. The animal deaths at the zoo are still continuing under the new management, including the adult male babirusa, a mongoose, leopard tortoise, scarlet ibis, rhea and an emaciated penguin. Food shortages are rife: I have been made [by] Ms Brewer to feed the animals mouldy bread in the past, and have been reprimanded for throwing it away, I was regularly having to beg for scraps from the [zoo] restaurant kitchen just to give the animals some fresh food.

If it hadnt been about the animals, I wouldnt have stayed as long as I did: James Potter, zoo worker turned whistleblower. Photograph: Ron Whitrow for the Guardian

Potter says he was also forced to supplement the food supply from local supermarkets. I have on many occasions had to buy food myself this can be verified at Tesco on Rawlinson Street, who have actually saved reduced price fruit and veg for me just to include fresh food in the diets.

Potter is speaking on the phone from his car. He and his wife are stuck in traffic on the motorway with all their belongings. Theyre moving away, out of the county, to a new life and new jobs.

Going on the record was a huge risk South Lakes staff are contractually banned from even taking photographs on site but Potter is in a chipper mood, relieved at finally having talked. In his two years there, 10 keepers left the zoo. If it hadnt been about the animals, I wouldnt have stayed as long as I did. I went to management and pushed as much as I could. At the end of the day, its supposed to be run for the welfare of the animals.

Potter describes a chaotic atmosphere. Breeding and culling would go in cycles, with adult baboons culled to make room for cuter babies: Id come into work and be told, Youve got to drop some of the food because weve culled them. Theyre not so keen on baby animals once they grow up they cost. Higher-status animals have the greatest chance of being fed: There is a pecking order. The ones who are more highly prized are the ones they can make money from lemurs, camels, giraffes that the public pay to hand-feed. Id be told, Give them the nicer looking carrots. (When this was put to Brewer, she made no comment about the pecking order, but said that animal husbandry had improved since January.)

Before Potters signed statement, the council claimed theyd received no formal complaints about the zoo since 2016 not one person had come forward. Potter disputes this. Id been on at the council for a year. Another keeper sent them a video of poor Pablo [the spider monkey] but didnt even get an acknowledgment. (Again the council wont respond to my requests for a comment.)

Id see kangaroos, just skin and bones. Staff with no training, no clue: a kangaroo at the zoo in 2016. Photograph: Captive Animals Protection Society

Brewer hit back at Potter in a statement claiming he was dismissed due to concerns in relation to his ability to carry out his role and anger/attitude issues. On the question of animal food, she said, Since January, we no longer depend on donated food from supermarkets and that since mid-2016 they no longer use food from the zoo restaurant. Rat poison is used outside of animal areas; the babirusas death had nothing to do with nutritional change; and the other animal deaths were due to normal causes such as gout, social breakdown or acute septicaemia Whilst still upsetting, these reported deaths were the result of organ failure or infectious causes, and did not follow historical patterns of husbandry or management concerns. Other deaths are representative of a normal zoos mortality patterns.


Word is getting round. Another former member of staff wants to talk, as long as she can remain anonymous. She worked as an animal carer for several months in 2016. In May that year, she says, she sent a letter to the RSPCA after Pablo the spider monkey died. The RSPCA wrote back to say that the animals were having their needs met. (The RSPCA say they cannot comment due to data protection.) We told quite a few people, but people just believe his [Gills] crap, she says. Its a relief to talk to someone who wants to listen.

She tells me more horror stories: how there were never enough two-way radios and how frightening it was to be left in a dangerous animal enclosure without one; how staff would leave animals to die because it was cheaper than calling the vet to have them euthanised; how rampant inbreeding saw some of the primates born with disturbing genetic defects, their heads the wrong size, at funny angles on their necks things like that. You could see the animals wasting away in front of you; they were malnourished and full of infections. The hippos had such dry skin it was cracking, but David Gill said that was natural in the wild. We wanted to bathe them, but he closed the indoor pool. Hed say, Why would you put them through that? The animals wouldnt touch the outdoor hippo pool: We werent allowed to clean it and it was full of excrement. Like a toilet.

The hippo pool would be cleaned only once every 12 months, before the yearly inspections. Karen would get us all in an hour early, brushing every path, cleaning all the enclosures. Because the zoo has no drainage system, the stuff was shovelled into a wheelbarrow and poured somewhere the inspectors wouldnt see. The inspections would only last for two hours anyway.

The experience has thrown her confidence in working with animals. It went against everything Id learned at university. I left because if you work there, youre the one killing them.


Why is it so hard to regulate zoos? Licences are granted only after a formal local authority inspection; the team must include one or more Defra-approved inspectors. Once open, all zoos are inspected annually by inspectors appointed by the local authority. But research by the Captive Animals Protection Society charity says that 70% of councils with zoos have missed at least one inspection since 2005, and 74% of inspection reports identify recurring unsatisfactory issues. A separate report by the Born Free foundation points to widespread regulatory failure, with only a quarter of zoos maintaining animal welfare standards. No public body will take responsibility. The only watchdogs are these two charities, whose findings are all too easily written off as anti-zoo.

Virginia McKenna, Born Frees founder and one of the worlds most respected conservationists, says that the troubles at South Lakes shine a light on what is wrong with zoos and the laws governing them in the UK today. It is clear that the problems at the zoo developed, to all intents and purposes unchecked, over a very long period, and now the council consider it sufficient to ensure the safety of the animals, staff and visitors by simply switching to a new licence holder. I am utterly disgusted. An independent review of the zoo licensing system is long overdue.

A white-handed gibbon at the zoo in 2016. Animal deaths last year included a squirrel monkey stuck behind a radiator. Photograph: Alamy

I call the council again: maybe they can tell me what happened over Christmas 2015, when three squirrel monkeys were stolen from the zoo in April 2016 the zoo told the council this was more than likely perpetrated by an ex-employee. Or why, in 2013, when Kadi the lion cub was killed by its father, zoo staff neither recorded it in the studbook nor informed concerned members of the public (some of whom had sponsored Kadi from birth), instead claiming theyd moved him to another zoo. This time, Im put on hold for just over three minutes. No journalists, the receptionist says when she comes back on the line.

A few days later, I try again: my 11th call. I want to know whos bankrolling Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd. In March, Brewer told the council that the new management didnt have a penny in the bank. The cost of applying for a zoo licence from Barrow borough council is 7,900, plus an 111,000 annual maintenance charge if application is successful, plus staff wages. I also want to know why council inspectors have had such a radical change of heart about Brewer. Only two months before awarding her a licence, they had declared themselves unconvinced that this transfer of power was enough to change conditions. Between November 2014 and July 2015, nine different management teams have been proposed to [the local authority] to manage the zoo, the report says. But there has always been a single common denominator behind all these changes; [David Gill] continued to run the zoo, either directly or indirectly, with [Karen Brewer] being presented as manager or CEO.

A receptionist tells me that head of licensing, Graham Barker, is away on holiday. Theres no one else whos dealing with this.


Brewer has agreed to meet me at the zoo. It is just over a month before the council announces its decision to grant her a licence. Id assumed we would be meeting one-on-one, so Im surprised when she leads me into a small meeting room where five other members of the new team sit in an awkward semi-circle. They seem nervous. Theres no one more passionate about the welfare of these animals, Brewer tells me by way of introduction. Theres nobody that knows these animals better than these guys.

Brewer worked for Gill for 15 years, starting off as an admin assistant and rising to become zoo manager, zoo educator, zoo and office manager and finally CEO. Gill was often travelling, so Brewer would sit in for him at inspections or council meetings. Poring over minutes from the last four or five years, Id discovered it was usually Brewer reassuring the council that things at the zoo were going to change. But she says now she has no contact with Gill except through her lawyer. Both sets of lawyers work for the same firm.

Chief executive Karen Brewer, who says of her team: theres no one more passionate about the welfare of these animals. Photograph: Cumbrian Newspapers Limited

The team introduce themselves. The big cats keeper, the health and safety coordinator, the deputy keeper, the maintenance manager, the accountant: most have worked here for between five and 10 years, arriving as novices. The vet isnt here because he works on an on-call basis only.

Were staff aware of the animal deaths, I ask. I think what this company is extremely keen to do is to look to the future, Brewer says. Since weve been in charge on the 12th January, weve brought in a number of changes, be it welfare, husbandry, dietary, veterinary, and weve surrounded ourselves with a number of zoo consultants who are extremely renowned within the zoo world, including vets, systems advisers.

I try again. How could you have been working at this zoo for so long and not share responsibility? The one thing we do have now is complete transparency and openness, regardless of what happens whether an animal dies, whether its sick. Brewer adds: People are learning.

So David Gill is entirely responsible for what happened?

I didnt say that.

So you share responsibility for what happened?

Were a company sat in front of you, making sure there is a future for this zoo. And theres nobody more passionate about the animals in their care than the team of keepers looking after them. The other staff nod in silence.

What happened when an animal died, I ask. I read aloud from the report about Miskin and Natasja, the snow leopard cubs who were discovered partly eaten. Were they there?

I was there, says Yaz Walker, the big cat keeper. It wasnt any fault of our own. It was

Brewer cuts in: At that point in time, we obviously got our meat supplied from a number of sources. At that time, we used to take meat from abattoirs, obviously. It was thought that there was some issue with the meat the cubs had eaten. Since that day, the only meat we take in is shop meat.

But why were the cubs found partially eaten?

Even in the wild that would happen, Walker says.

Its survival of the fittest, isnt it? adds deputy head keeper Kathy Black.

Brewer suggests I talk to her lawyer if I want to know more. When I ask whether any of the staff expressed concerns to Gill about how he was running the zoo, Brewer says, Thats a question I dont want asked, because thats between me and David. Who was in charge when he was away? She says: Its not something we even want to get involved with because you start pointing fingers and at the end of the day were not about that.

How many animals have died since 12 January? I couldnt tell you that off the top of my head, Brewer says. I could tell you that information obviously is free information everything is completely free and transparent. But I couldnt tell you that right now.


Since June last year, Gill hasnt spoken to the press apart from one statement through his lawyer. Suddenly, two days after the council make their decision, I receive a message: he wants to talk. Ten minutes later, hes on the phone: upset, unrepentant and full of allegations against Brewer. In 2015, I gave up animal management altogether, so I could concentrate on the business side of things and the building of the new part of the zoo, he claims. Karen Brewer was made CEO. She employed everybody, oversaw standards, management, marketing. She was in charge of everything, including animal welfare. And for the last 15 years, Ive only spent six months of the year in the UK, so for the last 15 years Karen Brewer has been managing the zoo for half the year. Ive driven the policy, she does management. I wasnt even at the zoo for all these inspections. Karen Brewer handled it all, because it was her responsibility.

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