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.