Warring tigers, escaping birds, marauding snakes: it's chaos at London Zoo

Inspectors identify catalogue of problems as funding gap bites
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The Independent Online

Britain’s most famous zoo requires millions of pounds of investment to rebuild crumbling enclosures unfit for keeping animals, as well as better fencing to protect the public from the risk of dangerous escaping exhibits, according to a confidential inspection report.

Inspectors from the local authority that licenses the 182-year-old zoo, Westminster Council, found:

*Crumbling compounds requiring at least £5m investment;

*Enclosures inadequate for the long-term keeping of tigers;

*Low fencing that could allow animals to escape into Regent’s Park;

*Concerns about monkeys in a public walk-through display;

*Escape of birds from aviaries and snakes loose in public areas;

*Broken fences allowing wild foxes to creep in and slaughter exhibits, including one dawn attack that killed 11 penguins.

The report, carried out last year, has been obtained by The Independent under Freedom of Information legislation.

Although the inspectors praised the zoo, saying that it contributed to conservation and was operated “extremely well”, they expressed frustration that several issues identified in previous inspections had still not been addressed, particularly crumbling buildings which are no longer fit for keeping animals.

During the last inpsection three years ago, the council ordered that several enclosures be demolished and rebuilt. In the new report, the inspectors say that the tiger pound is still inadaquate because it lacks a “double paddock” necessary for separating feuding animals.

On their last visit, in November 2007, the vets noticed that a newly-introduced female tiger had wounds to her hind leg caused by the male, and made it a licence condition that within two years the zoo would lodge plans for the extra space. While the inspectors said the issue had disappeared because the tigress had been moved to another zoo, they added that the problem could occur again and the Zoological Society of London, which runs the zoo, should carry out a review of the requirement of a double paddock system.

Concern was expressed about the state of the North Bank Aviaries, where holes in the netting had allowed birds to escape, and about the dilapidated Parrot House, which no longer houses birds. A previous report insisted that the North Bank Aviaries be rebuilt or demolished within three years but the inspectors dropped the deadline, saying that the zoo would have difficulty finding funding to replace the building, which houses pheasants and other birds.

As a result of the criticism the London Zoological Society has since come forward with a £3m plan for a new Big Cat enclosure and a £2m plan to rebuild the Parrot House, for which it is seeking public donations.

Inspectors noticed that squirrel monkeys in the Walk Through Monkey Enclosure were staying away from the area visited by the public during the daytime and ordered a report. The zoo said the problem came from a male being treated for epilepsy, but agreed to provide more screening to hide the monkeys from the public.

Esaped non-venomous Aesculapian snakes were spotted moving about in public areas.

On escapes, the zoo’s procedures could be “enhanced” because of the low perimeter fence which runs alongside Regent’s Park and several roads. The 53-page report said: “At present the perimeter fence is made of ageing railings that are approximately 6 feet in height. The fencing is in no way capable of containing some of the animals that are part of London Zoo’s collections.”

London Zoo has held talks on upgrading them with the Royal Parks, but the park authorities are keen to keep them because they allow people to view the zoo from outside. The inspectors did not make the upgrading compulsory.

In the most serious incident involving poor security, a wild fox crept through holes in fencing and killed 11 penguins. The bodies were cleared up by zookeepers in the morning and the zoo opened as usual at 10am.

During the past three years, foxes have also killed a Flamingo chick, two South American mara, and a free-range chicken.

Craig Redmond of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, which is opposed to zoos, said that the zoo using the current economic climate as a reason for further delaying improvements “needs questioning”. He said: “While we agree with the zoo inspectors who have recognised that the current enclosure for the tigers needs serious improvements, we do question the £3million cost to build an enclosure that would still be 8,000 times smaller than the smallest home range for this species.

“Serious concerns were raised by zoo inspectors in 2007 about the potential for animals such as tigers to escape the zoo because of inadequacies with the perimeter fence... We are shocked to see that this has still not been addressed, with cost being cited as a reason.

“We would ask the public to consider this: if these are the types of ongoing problems in Britain’s most well-known zoo, what is happening at the 400 other zoos across the nation?”

Ian Redmond, a primatologist who acts as envoy for the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership, said that London Zoo contributed more to conservation in the wild than most zoos. “We should give credit where credit is due and ZSL as an organisation is funding in-situ conservation, but only a tiny proportion of its annual budget” he said.

“The role of a captive collection is increasingly being brought into question and I hope the society will evolve and put more effort into field conservation rather than maintaining a collection for the entertainment of the people of London.”

London Zoo said it was doing its best within an ageing and restricted space. Zoological Director David Field said: “The inspectors had many positive things to say about London Zoo and... were impressed by the dedication of our keepers, our continual improvement plans, and the amount we contribute to conservation and science.”

He added that the zoo wanteds to be “honest”about the challenges it faced. “London Zoo is more than 180 years old, covers 36 acres, and contains 13 listed buildings. Unlike some other leading London visitor attractions, the zoo does not receive any government funding, so every penny we spend has to be raised through ticket sales, fundraising or through donors. We are rightly proud of our heritage, but it does sometimes present challenges in redevelopment.”

The History

*London Zoo was founded in 1828 by a British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles, who also founded Singapore and gave his name to its most famous hotel, Raffles.

*Originally intended for scientific research, the zoo opened to the public in 1847. Innovations copied by other zoos include the founding of the first reptile house (1849), first public aquarium (1853) and children's zoo (1938).

*Its most famous animals have included the quagga (a zebra-like animal which is now extinct) and Guy, a western lowland gorilla who arrived at the zoo on 5 November 1947.

*In recent years, the zoo's history has been more troubled. It was threatened with closure in the early 1990s but secured its future after a groundswell of public support. In 2001, the Zoological Society of London, which runs the zoo, moved its last elephants to Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire.

*It has upgraded some of its facilities and opened the £5.3m Gorilla Kingdom in 2007. However, challenges remain in running a central London zoo with listed buildings on a 36-acre site which has no room for expansion.