Woburn Animals Suffer in Cramped Cages


Woburn animals' secret suffering in cramped cages

Inspectors have cracked down on flaws at the famous wildlife park after they found animals were being kept in overcrowded enclosures

Woburn Safari Park, which claims its animals enjoy living in a “natural environment”, has been keeping many of them for long periods in overcrowded, unsafe or dangerous enclosures which left some half-blind and in pain.

The park, which is owned by the Duke of Bedford, and attracts almost 500,000 visitors a year, trades on the way the lions and tigers are allowed to roam freely across spacious enclosures covering more than 40 acres. When the public are not looking, however, it has been packing them into cramped cages for up to 18 hours a day.

The harsh reality of the treatment suffered by the animals has emerged in a report by government inspectors. It raises serious questions about the attraction, opened 40 years ago, as one of the first drive-through safari parks outside Africa.

The inspectors also found:

Craig Redmond, of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, called the revelations “probably the most shocking evidence I have ever seen in a UK zoo”. He questioned how previous zoo inspectors had missed the problems and called for a full inquiry.

“People say to me ‘surely safari parks are different because they offer more space than zoos’, but this now raises questions over how safari parks really operate,” he said.

Moments after the last visitor’s car has left the 32-acre lion enclosure each day, Woburn staff use Land Rovers to herd the big cats along the fence towards a row of 10 shoddy breeze-block pens on one side of the enclosure, each measuring approximately 10ft square.

Once inside the pens, metal-mesh gates are padlocked, shutting them in — and there they stay until ready to be brought out again for public display. In winter, when the park is open for only a few hours each day, this means the big cats are kept cooped up for about 18 hours a day.

Last week a Sunday Times reporter watched the lions being put back into their pens at 5.20pm, even though there were several hours of daylight remaining. Many other zoos, such as nearby Whipsnade, allow their big cats to have free movement between their indoor and outdoor enclosures 24 hours a day. The disclosures came after Central Bedfordshire council, alerted by an informant earlier this year, sent inspectors from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to Woburn where they made a number of alarming discoveries.

The lions’ and tigers’ enclosures are not equipped with electric fences, and to stop the animals escaping they are simply locked within the small pens once the visitors have

During the day, while the lions are allowed to roam, armed patrols keep the enclosure secure.

The Defra inspection of the lions’ accommodation, carried out in January, found the pens were “inadequate in space provision”, as well as “structurally unsound and unsafe”. They were “very crowded and there was no provision for individual feeding or sleeping areas”. There was also “no visible environmental enrichment”, and during the winter season the 16 lions were confined, two or three to a pen, for “unreasonable lengths of time”. An unstable mix of different lion families within the pride was causing them to fight each other, inflicting injuries.

The inspectors noted that a new building was being built to house the lions overnight in an attempt to remedy the situation, but that this was not completed. The council said this weekend that the re-homing of three lions to another zoo had stabilised the pride.

A similar set of pens for the park’s two tigers, which are screened from the public’s view, are also being assessed by the inspectors. Woburn admitted this weekend that they were also inadequate and were being replaced.

The inspectors also examined the way Woburn was keeping its sea lions. The marine mammals, which had long been made to perform in a daily display for the paying public, had been forced to live for years in chlorinated water, which causes painful eye and skin ailments. The guidance for zoos keeping such animals is to fill their pools with salinated water, in order to replicate the animals’ natural environment.

According to an internal report by Woburn’s own staff, the long-term effects of the chemical on the sea lions had been little short of devastating.

“I am ashamed to be part of the team that keeps them under these conditions and wonder if we would be in breach of the welfare act. We do actually know that their health and wellbeing is being compromised, yet we are not doing anything about it,” wrote Katie Rice, the park’s deputy team leader in an email to Celia Deeley, the operations director, in April 2009.

In the email Rice took issue with a decision on the sea lions being delayed until “the season was over”, saying she was “struggling to be patient when I see these animals suffer on a daily basis”. She added: “Today Spratt, one of our sea lions, is bumping into the sides of the pool as her eyes are so tightly shut; she has also been biting on the wood sides in pain after having some of her ulcerations scraped away yesterday to try to get them to heal.”

In her report, written in April 2009 and commissioned by Woburn, Rice stated: “Due to welfare reasons the current filtration system at the sea lion pool should be changed immediately ... While their lifespan may remain unaffected ... this does not mean that their quality of life has not been significantly compromised.” It was called Proposal for the Introduction of a Non-Chemical Water Treatment System at the Current Sea Lion Outdoor Pool.

Rice said of Woburn’s sea lion shows: “If the public were aware that the animals were being kept in chemically treated water that caused chronic painful eye and skin conditions it is unlikely that they would want to participate in such demonstrations.” She concluded that if changing the filtration system was “not an option for financial reasons” then the sea lions should be moved somewhere that can “better care for them”.

It is very likely chlorine plays a significant role in causing health problems, like skin and eye problems

Guidelines produced by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria state that sea lions “require either natural or artificial sea water” and it “strongly recommends” the use of biological filtration instead of chlorine. They add: “It is very likely chlorine plays a significant role in causing health problems, like skin and eye problems.”

This weekend Woburn said it had acted on the internal report “immediately”, by supplying the sea lions with supplementary sea water pools, although the sea lions were only removed from the chlorinated system in October last year, six months after Rice’s report.

Mike Potter, the chief executive of Woburn Enterprises, stressed that the sea lions had been given a clean bill of health by inspectors who returned to the park this month.

Woburn hopes to move the sea lions, which are no longer on public display, to another zoo with a sea water pool this summer.

The Defra inspectors also found problems with the enclosure of Raja, Woburn’s 3Å ton bull Asian elephant — a type of animal considered notoriously unpredictable. Last November Raja managed to escape his supposedly state-of-the-art £1.6m enclosure, which had been opened only in 2008. When the council was alerted to the allegations about the park in January this year, they looked closely at Raja’s pen and inspected a diary of the elephant’s behaviour.

In April Woburn was issued with a prohibition notice by the council stating that “the elephant fences are inadequate to effectively contain within his enclosure Raja the bull elephant, having considered his size, weight, strength and temperament and specialists’ reports received from structural engineers and Defra- approved vets.

“There is a real and present likelihood of escape from the appointed enclosure which could result in contact with persons visiting or working at the premises, the likely outcome of such contact is serious injury or threat to life.”

It was immediately agreed that a keeper should supervise Raja while he was in his outside paddock at all times. This, together with ongoing structural works, satisfied the council that the notice was being complied with, and this weekend it declared the control measures to be adequate pending a more permanent solution.

Potter said Woburn was appealing against the council’s prohibition notice because Raja was “one of the best trained and most calm and manageable bull elephants in Europe”. He said Raja was not a danger to the public. He said the lion and tiger houses were “products of their times” and accepted they were “now recognised as not meeting Woburn’s commitment to delivering excellence in welfare”.

The new tiger house is expected to be completed next spring and the lion house this summer. He denied that the public were being misled, however, saying “Woburn’s animal houses are clearly evident in the visitors’ journey and we believe visitors realise the large houses are homes for the animals that live around them”. He added that Woburn Safari Park had spent £4m on animal welfare over the past five years: “Woburn is committed to animal welfare and best practice.”

A spokesman for the council, which carried out a further inspection earlier this month, said a number of matters were still under consideration.

Daniel Foggo



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