The secrets of Woburn's animals

Woburn Safari Park, one of the best known zoos in the UK, has been exposed by CAPS over the way in which it kept lions in cramped, unsuitable enclosures for up to 18 hours a day.

Zoo bosses knew about these problems but government zoo inspectors missed these conditions for years despite saying the zoo met the animals’ needs.

Woburn, which is owned by the Duke of Bedford, attracts almost 500,000 visitors a year. Like all safari parks, it claims to provide spacious enclosures, particularly for big cats such as lions. It celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Craig Redmond, Campaigns Director at the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) commented:

“The evidence we have seen highlights the most shocking scenario at a UK zoo. Woburn is a member of both the British and European zoo trade bodies which claim to uphold the highest standards. Its head of animals is even an advisor to the government on zoo issues.

“We are calling for the local council, Department of Environment and zoo trade bodies to carry out an urgent enquiry into how these conditions were allowed to continue for a long period of time without action being taken earlier or zoo inspectors made aware.

“This is not just about the conditions at Woburn and whether animal welfare is compromised. It’s not even just about the inherent failings of a zoo licensing system that has allowed this to continue for so long with no questions asked. It reaches the very heart of CAPS’ concerns – as long as people find it acceptable to confine animals in zoos, safari parks and aquariums for our entertainment these problems will always exist as financial constraints will always limit what can be provided for the animals. The solution is not increased regulation but a moving away from zoos altogether, with resources focused on real conservation, protecting natural habitats.”

Lions

In January, government inspectors carried out a special visit to Woburn to address concerns about how the zoo’s 16 lions were housed. They found:

  • In the winter the lions were kept inside for approximately 18 hours a day
  • The building was “cracked in places and it appears to be structurally unsound”
  • The way the building is operated means that zoo staff have to be protected by a warden with a shotgun every time they open the doors to let lions out. “There was a warden standing with a shotgun when the inspectors got out to inspect the house, even though the doors were locked, in case any deterioration of the building allow an escape”
  • “The animals were very crowded and there was no provision for individual feeding or sleeping areas. There was no visible environmental enrichment. Some of the lions exhibited skin wounds and multiple scars of various age, some fresh, some healed.”
  • “There were clear signs of substantial fighting between the animals; the overnight house was inadequate in space provision and facilities for the animals, structurally unsound and unsafe to operate; and the lions were confined in the winter season for unreasonable lengths of time”.

A new house is currently being built for the lions but for now they remain in the same conditions. Zoo inspectors said that “the new house does not appear to come close to meeting” World Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards in terms of den space.

Elephant

The local council issued a prohibition notice on the zoo in April after discovering that the bull (male) elephant Raja had escaped from his enclosure. Inspectors found that “the elephant fences are inadequate to effectively contain” Raja within his enclosure.

According to the prohibition notice: “There is a real and present likelihood of escape” from the enclosure which could result in “serious injury or threat to life” to zoo staff or visitors.

Whenever Raja is in his enclosure he has to be supervised by a keeper. When CAPS visited Woburn earlier this month Raja was accompanied by a new female, Yu Zin who was brought to Woburn a month before the prohibition notice was issued.

Woburn Safari Park has said that is appealing against the council’s prohibition notice because Raja was “one of the best trained and most calm and manageable bull elephants in Europe”.

Safari Park statement

In a statement issued on 20 June, in response to the Sunday Times’ coverage of these issues, Woburn Safari Park claim the newspaper article provides “an unfair and inaccurate impression of conditions at the Park” and it has always been committed to animal welfare and best practice.

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