Animal rights group fury at plan to have live crocodile as Exploris' star attraction
A crocodile is at the centre of a dispute after animal rights activists accused a council of breaching its own rules on using animals for entertainment.
The 1.5m long crocodile was snapped up by Crumlin Road Goal Ltd (CRG) which operates the Exploris aquarium in Portaferry.
CRG said the crocodile was to be a special educational attraction for Northern Ireland's only aquarium alongside other reptiles which the facility will re-home from rescue centres.
CRG has enjoyed outstanding success with the transformed Belfast prison, now one of the top three visitor attractions in Northern Ireland.
Last year, Exploris almost closed permanently due to a funding crisis.
But a rescue package and new ownership means the aquarium at the tip of the Ards peninsula is due to reopen on August 15 following renovations - and the crocodile could prove to be a star attraction.
However, animal rights group Northern Ireland Says No To Animal Cruelty (NISNTAC) claimed Ards and North Down Council had done a U-turn after agreeing last year to prohibit animals being used for entertainment purposes on its land.
Although the policy was aimed at circuses, NISNTAC said taking the huge reptile out of its natural surroundings to live in a tank "goes against the five freedoms of the Animal Welfare Act 2006".
"We see this from the perspective that the council policies on animal welfare are confusing and inconsistent," said Daniel Barclay, one of the three founders of NISNTAC.
"The same council banned the use of animals on council property from being used to make profit or for entertainment purposes but by buying a crocodile for these purposes they seem to have gone against that.
"We are completely against any animal being taken from its natural habitat and being placed in an unnatural environment which in this case is a different climate altogether.
"It goes against two of the five freedoms which say that an animal must have the freedom to exhibit its natural behaviours and the freedom to live in it's natural surroundings.
"How is it supposed to do either living in a tank in Portaferry?"
But the claims are disputed by CRG and the council which said the crocodile was not born in the wild.
A spokesperson for Ards and North Down Council said: "These reptiles were born in captivity. They are moving to a facility that is fully equipped, licensed and inspected to house them so we believe the move will improve their quality of life.
"The move will be managed by animal welfare experts to ensure minimum distress to the animals and in compliance with Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs regulations.
"The reptiles and tropical fish, like the native fish that currently reside in Exploris, will be used as a learning tool to educate visitors and communicate the conservation message associated with each individual animal."
Kevin Flannery, Marine Biologist and director of Exploris, added: "Exploris is a centre dedicated to educating people about the well-being of animals from our seas and about reptiles.
"Our ongoing work with rescued animals makes Exploris aquarium the only seal hospital in the whole of Ireland.
"The welfare of the animals in our care is of primary concern.
"We believe that by enabling people to see, experience and learn about them in a managed way we can promote greater understanding of marine and tropical environments and support the better conservation of the animals in the longer term."