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Safari parks are not the acceptable face of captivity

by Darren

By now you’ve probably read the news in today’s Sun and Daily Mail alleging that Knowsley Safari Park allowed untrained keepers to engage in what was effectively target practice – shooting surplus animals in a “cack-handed” way, requiring 2 or 3 shots to finish the job.  The article also published pictures taken by the zoo’s own publicity photographer showing carcasses of animals dumped in the open air where they remained, it is alleged, for up to ten days.

Further articles on the BBC and at the Liverpool Echo don’t go as far, which might cause us to think that the story is exaggerated, but for me I think it’s very telling that Knowsley’s response doesn’t even address the allegation that animals were shot by untrained individuals in a way that would undoubtedly have been distressing for both the victim and the member of staff.  They claim that the animals in the picture were moved around, and were all animals which had died, but admit that they stored the bodies inappropriately.

So to summarise, there are two claims here.  One, that dead animals were stored inappropriately which the zoo has admitted.  Second, that animals were shot inhumanely by untrained staff who should have not have been practicing on live animals.  That allegation is, at the time of writing, unanswered.

I learnt of this from the guys at Captive Animals (CAPS), the charity which broke the story. They dropped me a line this morning, knowing that while I would be extremely distressed to learn of such uncaring and blatantly wrong behaviour by a company which keeps animals, that I’d be able to give it a bit more publicity via social media.  They didn’t need me – I gather Knowsley was trending on Twitter at lunchtime before I’d got involved.  If true, this is such an appalling action by people who claim to support conservation that it really shows up captivity for what it is.  A business, trading on an outdated notion that it’s acceptable to collect animals.

Many people think of safari parks as the acceptable face of captivity.  I used to be one of them – I went to Longleat many times in my youth.  I didn’t know at the time that the safari park was set up by Roger Cawley.  He and his wife Mary (Chipperfield) went on to be convicted of cruelty to animals at the circus related business they owned.  He was convicted of whipping a sick elephant …. an employee beat another elephant with an iron bar twelve times.  He hit it so hard that it broke the bar.

In 2009 at Woburn Safari Park, Defra found big cats were locked up for hours in unsafe pens, sea lions kept in chlorinated water that caused them to go blind, and turtles kept for months in temporary tanks.

I’m fortunate enough to have seen many animals in the wild.  The elephants above were photographed on my first ever safari, at the wonderful Amboseli reserve in southern Kenya.  We think that safari parks are ok because they appear to have more space than the cages or modern fashionable acrylic pens that traditional zoos use, but it’s nothing compared to the vast ranges these animals occupy in their natural habitat.

I was approaching 30 when I first went on that trip to Amboseli.  We live in a more connected world than at any time in our past – these wonderful animals can be revealed to us far better by Big Cat Week than they can by seeing an animal in a big plastic box.  If we want to educate children, then lets show them the beauty of the wildlife on our doorstep and introduce them to exotics via television and the internet.  Indeed air travel is so cheap now that if what you really want to do is show them a lion in the wild, you can do that.  For most people it is a case of choosing their luxuries.

And that’s what it is.  Seeing these animals is a luxury, a massive privilege and an amazing experience.  But it’s not a right.

We used to think we had the right to collect countries and populations of people.  Colonialism has virtually died out over the last fifty years and we now think it’s wrong to own people.  Democracy has taken over.

Keeping wild animals in captivity is outdated whether they are overcrowded pens or slightly bigger grassy enclosures.  We still think it’s acceptable to collect wild animals – it’s not.

It belongs in the past and I hope it won’t take us 50 more years to put it there.