Licence application for zoo where nearly 500 animals died

South Lakes Safari zoo was initially refused a renewal

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The fate of a Cumbrian zoo where almost 500 animals died within four years will be decided today as a fresh licence application is considered.

In March, David Gill, the owner and founder of South Lakes Safari Zoo, was refused a renewal of his existing licence but on Tuesday a subsequent application in the name of Cumbria Zoo Company Limited (CZCL), which has operated the zoo since January, will go before Barrow borough councillors.

Members of the council's licensing regulatory committee will be told that Mr Gill has stepped away from all trading and management activities connected with the zoo in Dalton-in-Furness.

Government inspectors who previously recommended refusing Mr Gill's licence 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 same team that worked under Mr Gill and there was no permanent suitably qualified animal manager in post.

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".

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

The Captive Animals' Protection Society say many of the changes made "simply provide the bare minimum are too little too late" and should have been in place throughout the history of the zoo and since CZCL chief executive Karen Brewer had been in a management position.

While 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.

The zoo has remained open during the appeal process.

Councillors will visit the zoo themselves before reconvening 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.

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