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Zoo admits health and safety breaches over death of keeper mauled by tiger

Published 08/06/2016

Sarah McClay was pounced on in the keeper's corridor of the tiger house at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria
Sarah McClay was pounced on in the keeper's corridor of the tiger house at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria
A general view of South Lakes Safari Zoo, formally known as South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Cumbria

A zoo has admitted health and safety breaches over the death of one of its keepers who was mauled by a Sumatran tiger.

Sarah McClay, 24, was pounced on in the keeper's corridor of the tiger house at South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, on May 24 2013.

The company, now known as South Lakes Safari Zoo, entered guilty pleas at Preston Crown Court to contravening the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in relation to the day of the tragedy.

The company admitted that on or before May 24 2013 it failed to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of employees, including Miss McClay, arising out of and/or in connection with the keeping of big cats.

It also pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that persons not in its employment on the above date were not exposed to risk to their health and safety.

The prosecution offered no evidence against the firm's sole director, David Gill, 55, who faced individual charges on the same allegations and formal not guilty verdicts were recorded against him.

Sentencing will take place at Preston Crown Court on Friday.

The pleas were entered on Wednesday ahead of a scheduled trial.

Following the hearing, Miss McClay's boyfriend, David Shaw, said: "It's a shame it took this long to come to what was a fairly obvious conclusion but I am pleased we do not have to go through a trial."

Miss McClay suffered "unsurvivable" multiple injuries and was airlifted from the scene to hospital where she was formally pronounced dead.

In September 2014, an inquest jury in Kendal ruled in a narrative verdict that Padang the Sumatran tiger got to Miss McClay by entering two open internal sliding gates within the tiger house and then an open door that led on to the corridor.

Systems were in place at the park to ensure that animals and keepers remained apart at all times through indoor and outdoor compartments connected by lockable self-closing doors, the inquest heard.

Miss McClay had worked at the park for more than two years and was well experienced with working with big cats which she saw as a "privilege".

Her mother Fiona McClay, from Linlithgow, West Lothian, said it was her daughter's "dream job" after she had visited the park as a child. She is expected to attend sentencing.

The animal was supposed to never have access to the corridor but the male tiger walked straight through a door to where Miss McClay, from Barrow-in-Furness, was as she carried out her cleaning and feeding duties in the house.

When colleagues of Miss McClay rushed in after the attack they found the door to one of the tigers' dens ajar and not locked.

Two internal sliding gates were also open which allowed Padang and his female companion, Alisha, to move in and out of a light den and a dark den to the outside enclosure.

The inquest heard that a bolt on the top of the dark den door - which had been the one open immediately before the attack - was found to be defective.

An environmental health officer for the local authority told the inquest jury that the top spring-loaded bolt could not be held back and it would bang against the frame when it tried to close, which left a gap of between 20mm and 25mm.

The jury found that one or more of the bolts on that door extended so as to prevent it from closing into the frame.

On Wednesday, the company provided a basis of plea in relation to the health and safety breaches committed on the day of the tragedy.

It accepted its risk assessment did not address sufficiently the risks arising from a failure to maintain the dark den door.

The company said "a more proactive maintenance and inspection regime" should have been in place to ensure that the door functioned efficiently and that its self-closing mechanism worked properly.

It added: "The failure of the door to self-close was a more than trivial cause of harm."

It can now be reported that South Lakes Safari Zoo Ltd pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to two other contraventions of the Health and Safety at Work Act when a zoo keeper fell from a ladder while preparing to feed big cats on July 18 2014.

The company admitted it failed to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees, including Yasmin Walker, on the above date and also to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

It is expected that the company will receive a financial penalty on Friday.

The prosecution case was brought by Barrow Borough Council, which licenses the park.

Mr Gill, of Furness View, Broughton Road, Dalton-in-Furness, made no comment as he left court.

In March the zoo announced the death of Padang due to "welfare complications arising from his age".

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