Campaigners have called for the phased closure of zoos after a Siberian tiger used for breeding purposes was found drowned in the enclosure of a zoo in Norfolk.
A full veterinary examination is under way at Banham Zoo, near Diss in Norfolk, after a post-mortem examination on the body of a pregnant Siberian tiger concluded the cause of death as drowning. The tiger, called Malyshka, had already given birth to two cubs and was pregnant with more. Further tests this week will examine if the five-year-old may have suffered a seizure. Martin Goymour, the zoo's director, said: "All the zoo staff, particularly her keepers, are very much saddened by her loss. We are professional in what we do in animal care at all times, but something like this hits home. We've kept tigers for years and the enclosure has been successful.
"Very few zoos in Europe are able to handle tigers, which is why the loss of Malyshka is such a severe blow," he told the BBC. "She was very important to the European breeding programme and was number three in the hierarchy of genetic diversity for captive tigers. We are also in contact with European stud book co-ordinators to find a suitable replacement female for our conservation programme involving either the senior male or one of the youngsters."
But after Mr Goymour's comments yesterday, campaigners called for a debate about breeding rare species in captivity. There are thought to be only 450 Siberian tigers left in the wild.
"There are still serious welfare issues regarding keeping animals in zoos and the argument of captive breeding is utterly irrelevant," said Craig Redmond, campaigns director for the Captive Animals' Protection Society (CAPS).
"There are so few cases where captive animals have been bred and brought back into the wild with success. Each time a situation like this occurs, it needs to be thoroughly investigated so that the public are made aware of the actual circumstances of the death and the necessity of the zoo – not be automatically led down the route of conservation. Zoos do not have a valid role any more. They are there purely for education purposes or a day out."
The comments mirror those of Angela Smith, the charities minister, who earlier this month denounced the concept of zoos, describing them as "relics of the Victorian era". Arguing that while certain venues "tried very hard", it was necessary to address the issue of animal welfare. Her comments were dismissed as "naive" by zoo managers while the Government announced that it had no plans to close any premises.