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Belfast zoo hit by damning report by international accreditation body EAZA

Damning letter as European accreditation for council facility is put on hold

By Rebecca Black

Published 01/11/2016

Visitors at the penguin enclosure at Belfast Zoo
Visitors at the penguin enclosure at Belfast Zoo
A ring-tailed lemur
Belfast Zoo entrance

A major international zoo body has concerns about the leadership of Belfast Zoo and how some of its animals are kept, it can be revealed.

The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) wrote to Belfast City Council this month informing it that the decision to accredit Belfast Zoo has been delayed in light of the issues.

In a letter seen by the Belfast Telegraph, dated October 1, Frank Rietkerk, chair of EAZA's Membership and Ethics Committee, said a "key concern" must be addressed before Belfast Zoo can receive accreditation.

It raised concerns over leadership of the zoo, questioned the level of aggression between the Andean bears, claimed the educational animals - including rabbits and reptiles - are not kept in acceptable conditions and stated conditions are "terrible" in the old zoo building where animals in quarantine are kept.

In response, a spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said that the correspondence from EAZA "relates to an accreditation and improvement process that Belfast Zoo is undergoing".

The letter from EAZA raised as a major concern as to why there had not been a dedicated zoo manager for 11 months.

"The screeners and the Membership and Ethics Committee found that the 11-month-long lack of a dedicated top level zoo manager has begun to wear on the zoo", the letter stated.

"Back areas were not terribly tidy, greens and grounds are not trimmed or maintained, and the uncertainty has begun to wear on the staff.

"The Membership and Ethics Committee feels that the leadership gap is so great, they cannot recommend full membership until has had been resolved".

The letter also listed seven minor concerns which mostly pertain to the care of the animals at the zoo.

It pointed out that the level of aggression between the Andean bears "is unacceptable and questionable welfare for the male".

"The team recognises that this is due to the birth of the cub, and that the male had only recently been reintroduced to the female, but the level of aggression the team witnessed was too high", the letter stated.

Another concern was the welfare of the educational animals.

"They are in too small enclosures (rabbit hutches, basic reptile enclosures) without proper light, furniture, substrate (hedgehogs) or enrichment", the letter said.

Next it found conditions in the old zoo buildings were "terrible" and warned that if a guest or "anti-zoo operative" obtained footage, the zoo could "suffer greatly as a result".

"The very old zoo area is being utilised in a limited way as a quarantine or temporary holding for some animals", the letter noted.

"The condition is pretty terrible, with rusting mesh, concrete floors etc".

There were also a number of recommendations and concerns including:

  • Adding salt water to the penguin and sea lion pool;
  • Underwater viewing was in poor condition and should be either blocked off from guests or redone;
  • The ringtail lemur and white ruffed lemur holding buildings were far too small;
  • A husbandry/medical chute should be added to the giraffe's barn for proper maintenance of these animals;
  • The spider monkey house and outdoor exhibit is "old, tired and difficult to manage, and should be prioritised for change/refurbishment";
  • The Andean bear house is "old and its design is difficult to manage a family group, and very dark."

There have been a number of monkey escapes at Belfast Zoo. Last year when two lion-tailed macaques named Rose and Zoid got out for several days, while in 2013 six lion-tailed macaques escaped.

Meanwhile, the education programme was recognised as having "huge potential".

The letter comes as councillors are debating the future of the zoo, but the committee responsible has ruled out closing the facility.

At a meeting on October 12, members were presented with a number of options, including simply maintaining the status quo, transforming the zoo in-house, transferring ownership to a council-owned company, a community asset transfer, a public/private partnership or a hybrid solution.

Ulster Unionist councillor Chris McGimpsey expressed concerns, saying that he would prefer to see the exotic animals transferred away, and the zoo transformed to a conservation centre for climatic northern European animals.

He said it could do important work conserving endangered local animals such as Irish hares, curlews and corncrakes.

"In previous times zoos brought lions to the UK to allow people the opportunity to see them, but now with television and internet, people can see them in their natural habitat," he said.

"The zoo could have an interactive screen or virtual reality for more exotic animals, rather than give elephants less than an acre, when in the wild they can roam for 1,000 sq km."

A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said work was under way to address the issues raised.

"The correspondence from EAZA relates to an accreditation and improvement process that Belfast Zoo is undergoing," she said. "The issues in the letter are raised by EAZA in advance of final accreditation and are to enable the zoo to respond to the issues within an agreed timescale - which we are doing.

"The work under way at Belfast Zoo is to ensure the sustainability and continued improvement of the facility.

"Regarding the specific issues raised - the zoo manager is currently being recruited and other issues are being addressed as appropriate."

The spokeswoman added that the old zoo was not open to the public and had limited functionality in relation to animal quarantine and for animals pending moves to other locations.

"At the time of the EAZA visit, the education animals were also in temporary accommodation while enclosure upgrades were taking place."

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