A charity has called for “a centralised system of inspectors” to monitor an estimated 430 big cats kept in Britain’s zoos after a zookeeper was killed when a tiger entered the enclosure she was in.
Chris Draper, from the Born Free Foundation, described Rosa King’s death at Hamerton Zoo Park in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire as a “terrible tragedy”.
He also spoke of a “sense of horrible deja vu” after 24-year-old Sarah McClay was killed by a tiger at South Lakes Wild Animal Park near Dalton-in-Furness in May 2013.
Mr Draper, the charity’s associate director for animal welfare and care, said around 44 British zoos keep one or more big cats, including tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, pumas and cheetahs.
From data gathered by Born Free he estimated there could be as many as 430 big cats, including around 100 tigers, currently kept in zoos across the country.
A Press Association Freedom of Information request to local councils last year revealed that two lions, 13 tigers, eight leopards, nine pumas and seven cheetahs are among the dangerous animals licensed to be kept at private addresses across Britain.
But Mr Draper explained there is no centralised database, nor any centralised lists of species or individual animals.
“Some of the large zoos do share information, but the so-called little zoos, not that little in some cases, but the ones that are not members of a zoo association, they tend to just do things their own way and they’re allowed to,” he said.
“The information isn’t shared properly, so it’s a bit of an unknown quantity out there, which is why we have been doing what we do to try and keep tabs on things.”
Mr Draper said individual local authorities are responsible for licensing.
“That’s the real weakness in the system,” he continued.
“There needs to be an active centralised list and moreover there needs to be a full-time centralised system of inspectors.”
Speaking about Ms King’s death, Mr Draper said: “It’s obviously a real tragedy. I can’t help but feel, ‘oh no not again,’ because a very similar incident happened four years ago at South Lakes Safari Zoo. So a certain sense of horrible deja vu.”
He said it was too early to comment on the circumstances, but added: “It does seem like a tiger got into an enclosure while Rosa King was in there for whatever reason, and I’m sure the circumstances will come out eventually.
“Obviously something went wrong, a failure in the system, human error or whatever, and somebody’s dead and that’s terrible.”
A spokesperson for charity The Captive Animals’ Protection Society also likened Ms King’s death to the death of Ms McClay four years ago.
“Zookeeper Rosa King lost her life after a tiger entered an enclosure at Hamerton Zoo Park in Cambridgeshire.
“The circumstances leading to this tragic event are currently unclear. It is with great sadness that we extend our sympathies to her family and friends,” said the spokesperson.
“This story is yet another upsetting example of the dangers involved in keeping wild animals in captivity, both for the public and staff.”
Danny Bamping, the founder of the British Big Cats Society, which was set up to catalogue and protect big cats, also highlighted the risks of keeping such animals.
He said: “Obviously, keeping big cats like lions and tigers is very dangerous and occasionally incidents and accidents happen - mainly down to human error.
“Some smaller zoos have limited budgets and out-of-date facilities and hence every year all licences are renewed by local authorities after an inspection.”
Dr Sonya Hill, a lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Chester, said: “My thoughts go to Ms King’s family, friends and colleagues at this terrible time.”
She explained the risks associated with keeping big cats in zoos can be minimised by having appropriately designed enclosures, fences and gatesas well as good standards of staff training.
“Within reason, zoos should also ensure their staff are trained and prepared to deal with ‘the worst’ scenarios, even though they should be taking every possible effort to prevent these situations arising in the first place,” Dr Hill said.
“I don’t think risks should be any greater in small parks just because they are small. Staff should still be trained to the necessary legal standards, and enclosures, fences, etc. should also still be up to required standards.”