Are Zoos Safe For Staff And Visitors?

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The Law Of… Maintaining Safety At The Zoo

After the safety at Edinburgh Zoo has been put into question, we query the safety of both workers and visitors of zoos in the UK and beyond. Animals rights activists are often fighting for the safety of the animals within captivity, but how safe are the keepers working in such close proximity to them?


Our Anna Thompson, Personal Injury Solicitor explores some of the more prolific cases of health and safety breakdowns in zoos and investigates the true safety of workers and guests.

What Is Going On At Edinburgh Zoo?

CCTV footage has been released from Edinburgh Zoo that depicts a close call for one of the keepers. As the female keeper is making her way out of the door of the enclosure, a male panda is seen to be just a few steps behind her having been let in before the keeper had left the enclosure. It is a common misconception that Pandas are placid animals, however, they have a similar aggression and strength level to that of a Black Bear.

Whilst no one was harmed during the incident, it has sparked worries over the health and safety standards at the zoo. The BBC reports that a leaked email between bosses at the zoo claims the safety standards are "in crisis".  

It went on to say,

"We are… worried about the safety of staff. We have found out that there was a serious near miss last year when a panda was let back into the enclosure with a keeper still cleaning in there and she could have been seriously injured or even have died."

How Are Zoos Kept Safe?

The Health And Safety Executive that is run by the Government provides practical guidance for zoo owners on how they might go about maintaining the safety of their workers and customers.

Under the section that covers 'Working with animals' the guidance suggests that zoo owners should categorise animals according to, "likely ferocity and ability to cause harm to people in proportion to risk levels." Zoo owners are advised to adopt a 'non-contact policy' for those animals in Category 1.

Category 1 animals are those who are:

"Greater Risk: Where contact is likely to result in serious injury or threat to life, e.g. large carnivores, primates ad venomous snakes etc."

There is also a Zoo Licensing Act that was created in 1981 that monitors all zoos in Great Britain for the health and safety of the animals, including their mental stability in the environment they are kept. But as London Zoo states on its website, "These are only guidelines…"

Zoo owners must have a licence to open their doors to the public for more than 7 days in a year and can be fined up to £2,500 if they run one without a license. It is the job of the local authority to inspect zoos that they have granted licenses to. If a zoo does not comply with the agreed license, a local authority has the power to shut down sections or even the entire zoo. 

Accidents At The Zoo

Near misses appear to be a commonality in all UK zoos, particularly in the form of animal escapes. In October last year, a gorilla escaped from its enclosure at London Zoo. Police were called to what was classed as a 'minor incident'. No one was hurt, despite the gorilla escaping into a keeper area.

A further incident involving gorillas occurred last month in Devon where three teenage gorillas escaped their enclosure. The three gorillas caused thousands of pounds worth of damage around the zoo by ripping apart water pipes, but a spokesman for the zoo assured the public that, "there was never any possibility of them escaping into public areas."

Last month also saw the escape of a wolf from a wildlife park in the Cotswolds. It was thought that the Eurasian wolf had climbed over a faulty electric fence and escaped into the surrounding countryside. The decision was taken to shoot the wolf in order to take maximum health and safety precaution.

Whilst near misses are often reported in the media, it is rarity to see that an escape or mistake has ended up in tragedy. Nevertheless, earlier this year, Rosa King was killed by a tiger at Hamerton Zoo after it entered the enclosure where she was working. There is currently an investigation into how this incident ended so tragically.

Keeper And Visitor Safety

The majority of zoos are safe places to work and visit thanks to the various guidance available to zoo owners and the monitoring from local authorities.. However, because of the unpredictable nature of wild animals, particularly those kept in captivity, the safety of workers and visitors alike is put into question. Animal rights activists such as Born Free, argue that the current legislation around the safe keeping of animals is not enough to ensure the welfare of the animals in zoos.  

After the near miss at Edinburugh Zoo, Captive Animal's Protection Society (CAPS) said,

"The leaked photo showing the keeper’s narrow escape highlights once again the very real risk to human safety created by keeping wild animals in captivity."

Anna comments:

"I think the public often take for granted the health and safety of zoos. These are isolated incidents and it is extremely rare for tragic events to occur in the UK, but not impossible."

"With regards to keepers, like in any working environment, employers have the responsibility to keep their entire staff safe in whatever the working environment. This is obviously a more complex issue when wild animals are involved."

"An incident like this suggests that normal health and safety protocol is not being followed and it is worrying to see that the zoo owners say they would only investigate if a worker made a complaint. Any evidence of health and safety issues must be investigated thoroughly whether someone has complained or not."



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