Mauled zookeeper’s mum hits out at licence decision

Sarah McClay was killed in 2013 after being mauled by a tiger. Picture; contributed
Sarah McClay was killed in 2013 after being mauled by a tiger. Picture; contributed

The mother of a zookeeper who was mauled to death by a tiger says the wildlife park should be refused an operating licence, despite it being given backing from government inspectors.

Fiona McClay’s daughter Sarah, 24, was killed at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, four years ago.

Ms McClay, from Linlithgow, says it should not receive any official sanction as there continue to be concerns about how it is being run.

In March, then-owner David Gill’s claim for a licence to run the zoo was unanimously refused by Barrow councillors after they heard there were 486 animal deaths at the zoo between January 2013 and September 2016.

Since January the zoo has been operated by Cumbria Zoo Company Limited (CZCL) and its application to prevent any future closure will be considered by members of the council’s licensing regulatory committee tomorrow. It is claimed Mr Gill has stepped away from all trading and management activities connected with the zoo.

However, opponents, including Mrs McClay, have questioned this and objected to the prospect of the licence being awarded.

Mrs McClay, who plans to be at the meeting tomorrow, said: “These are the same people who are applying for a licence that have been there over the years and have not been doing anything about what has been happening.

“And there appears to be clear evidence that something has been going on with regard to the health and welfare of the animals. It is atrocious.

“I don’t think they should be issued with the licence at the moment, because I don’t feel there is enough evidence in place to prove they can continue in the proper manner, looking after the animals properly.”

Ms McClay, who is concerned the new company was being run by existing staff, will visit the zoo no matter what the outcome is.

She said: “It is to show that we are completely unbiased, we don’t necessarily want the zoo to close. I just want to see it for myself, so when people ask me, I can say that I have been.”

Government inspectors are now supporting CZCL’s licence bid, subject to it meeting a number of conditions, following their latest site visit.

The inspectors conceded there “might be some concern” among councillors given that the present management team and senior staff are similar to the team that worked under Mr Gill.

There was also no permanent suitably qualified animal manager in post. But they added they were satisfied a robust management and staffing structure was in place with the loyalty of the keepers noted as “astonishing”.

But in a response to the council, the Captive Animals’ Protection Society said many of the changes “simply provide the bare minimum” and are “too little too late”.

The Born Free Foundation added: “It is important to note that this is not solely a management issue that can be fixed by awarding a zoo licence to another applicant.

“There are clearly fundamental issues including staffing, infrastructure and resources at the zoo.”