Health mutt: proposal to put shelter dogs on vegan diet divides Los Angeles

A possible plan to move the citys dogs onto a plant-based diet has the backing of prominent vegans such as Moby, but others warn it could get messy

Proponents say it will make Los Angeles the worlds progressive capital. Sceptics say it will mean diarrhea, lots of diarrhea.

The proposal, which has divided scientists and animal rights groups and inflamed social media, is to put dogs in the citys public shelters on a vegan diet.

The Los Angeles animal services commission is considering the idea after lobbying by prominent vegans, including Moby, the dance music pioneer.

The commission unanimously voted earlier this month for a feasability study and analysis of the benefits and risks. A report detailing pilot project options is expected in February.

Roger Wolfson, a commissioner and television screenwriter who is driving the initiative, cites ethical, environmental and health reasons to switch dogs to plant-based food.

Currently more than 20,000 chickens, 10,000 turkeys and 1,000 lambs die each year in order to be churned into food for the 33,000 dogs in LAs public shelters, he said.

We are the department of animal services, not the department of animal companion services, he told the Guardian this week. So we need to start from a place of avoiding unnecessary killing of animals. We already shelter pigs and chickens and turkeys and we wouldnt think about killing them unnecessarily. So if dogs can get their needs met without killing animals we owe it to the citizens of Los Angeles to try.

Wolfson, who was a political speechwriter in Washington DC before moving to LA and writing for shows such as Fairly Legal and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, also cited the impact of meat and dairy consumption on deforestation, greenhouse gases and ocean dead zones.

Several high-profile allies endorsed Wolfsons proposal at a public hearing in November, including the musician and DJ Moby, who owns a vegan restaurant in LA. If we adopt this, its just one more thing that proves to the world that Los Angeles really is the progressive capital of the world, he said, according to meeting minutes, which used his real name, Richard Hall.

Musician and vegan restaurant owner Moby is a supporter of the plan. Photograph: Kris Connor/WireImage

However, the citys chief veterinarian, Jeremy Prupas, cited clinical nutritionists, a veterinary toxicologist and other experts who advised against a vegan diet. In addition to health questions, workers at the understaffed shelter would confront canine diarrhea, a big issue, Prupas said.

Armaiti May, an LA-based veterinarian who supports the proposal, told the Guardian that abrupt changes in diet can lead to looser stools but that a gradual transition would avoid major problems. Its a small issue in the grand scheme of things. May believes meat-based kibbles have fuelled a cancer and allergy epidemic in dogs.

Tracy Reiman, executive vice-president of the animal rights group Peta, said a vegan diet was healthier and more ethical than feeding dogs factory farmed animals who have endured miserable lives and gruesome deaths and whose dead, dying, diseased, or disabled carcasses are found in most commercial dog foods.

Other voices urge caution. Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and Tufts university professor, told the New York Times earlier this year there were no long-term studies on the effects of veganism in dogs. We know a lot about dog nutrition, but there are unknowns as well it isnt easy to formulate a high-quality diet for dogs, and its particularly difficult with a vegan diet.

Social media has bristled with arguments for and against, the latter insisting dogs need meat.

Owners who have put their dogs on vegan diets say diarrhea fears are overblown and that health benefits are tangible. Winky had been plagued with recurring ear infections which disappeared permanently after I phased the meat-based food out of his diet, Karen Dawn, an author and activist, wrote in an LA Times op-ed.

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Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown | George Monbiot

The shocking collapse of insect populations hints at a global ecological meltdown, writes Guardian columnist George Monbiot

Which of these would you name as the worlds most pressing environmental issue? Climate breakdown, air pollution, water loss, plastic waste or urban expansion? My answer is none of the above. Almost incredibly, I believe that climate breakdown takes third place, behind two issues that receive only a fraction of the attention.

This is not to downgrade the danger presented by global heating on the contrary, it presents an existential threat. It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impacts that they push even this great predicament into third place.

One is industrial fishing, which, all over the blue planet, is now causing systemic ecological collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land by farming.

And perhaps not only non-human life. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, at current rates of soil loss, driven largely by poor farming practice, we have just 60 years of harvests left. And this is before the Global Land Outlook report, published in September, found that productivity is already declining on 20% of the worlds cropland.

The impact on wildlife of changes in farming practice (and the expansion of the farmed area) is so rapid and severe that it is hard to get your head round the scale of what is happening. A study published this week in the journal Plos One reveals that flying insects surveyed on nature reserves in Germany have declined by 76% in 27 years. The most likely cause of this Insectageddon is that the land surrounding those reserves has become hostile to them: the volume of pesticides and the destruction of habitat have turned farmland into a wildlife desert.

It is remarkable that we need to rely on a study in Germany to see what is likely to have been happening worldwide: long-term surveys of this kind simply do not exist elsewhere. This failure reflects distorted priorities in the funding of science. There is no end of grants for research on how to kill insects, but hardly any money for discovering what the impacts of this killing might be. Instead, the work has been left as in the German case to recordings by amateur naturalists.

But anyone of my generation (ie in the second bloom of youth) can see and feel the change. We remember the moth snowstorm that filled the headlight beams of our parents cars on summer nights (memorialised in Michael McCarthys lovely book of that name). Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing or rather, not seeing.

Insects, of course, are critical to the survival of the rest of the living world. Knowing what we now know, there is nothing surprising about the calamitous decline of insect-eating birds. Those flying insects not just bees and hoverflies but species of many different families are the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive. The wonders of the living planet are vanishing before our eyes.

Well, I hear you say, we have to feed the world. Yes, but not this way. As a UN report published in March explained, the notion that pesticide use is essential for feeding a growing population is a myth. A recent study in Nature Plants reveals that most farms would increase production if they cut their use of pesticides. A study in the journal Arthropod-Plant Interactions shows that the more neonicotinoid pesticides were used to treat rapeseed crops, the more their yield declines. Why? Because the pesticides harm or kill the pollinators on which the crop depends.

Farmers and governments have been comprehensively conned by the global pesticide industry. It has ensured its products should not be properly regulated or even, in real-world conditions, properly assessed. A massive media onslaught by this industry has bamboozled us all about its utility and its impacts on the health of both human beings and the natural world.

The profits of these companies depend on ecocide. Do we allow them to hold the world to ransom, or do we acknowledge that the survival of the living world is more important than returns to their shareholders? At the moment, shareholder value comes first. And it will count for nothing when we have lost the living systems on which our survival depends.

To save ourselves and the rest of the living world, heres what we need to do:

1 We need a global treaty to regulate pesticides, and put the manufacturers back in their box.

2 We need environmental impact assessments for the farming and fishing industries. It is amazing that, while these sectors present the greatest threats to the living world, they are, uniquely in many nations, not subject to such oversight.

3 We need firm rules based on the outcomes of these assessments, obliging those who use the land to protect and restore the ecosystems on which we all depend.

4 We need to reduce the amount of land used by farming, while sustaining the production of food. The most obvious way is greatly to reduce our use of livestock: many of the crops we grow and all of the grazing land we use are deployed to feed them. One study in Britain suggests that, if we stopped using animal products, everyone in Britain could be fed on just 3m of our 18.5m hectares of current farmland (or on 7m hectares if all our farming were organic). This would allow us to create huge wildlife and soil refuges: an investment against a terrifying future.

5 We should stop using land that should be growing food for people to grow maize for biogas and fuel for cars.

Then, at least, nature and people would have some respite from the global onslaught. And, I hope, a chance of getting through the century.

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

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Penguins starving to death is a sign that somethings very wrong in the Antarctic | John Sauven

Overfishing, oil drilling, pollution and climate change are imperilling the ecosystem. But ocean sanctuaries could help protect what belongs to us all, says Greenpeace director John Sauven

The awful news that all but two penguin chicks have starved to death out of a colony of almost 40,000 birds is a grim illustration of the enormous pressure Antarctic wildlife is under. The causes of this devastating event are complex, from a changing climate to local sea-ice factors, but one thing penguins, whales and other marine life dont need is additional strain on food supplies.

Over the next year we have the opportunity to create an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary the largest protected area on Earth which would put the waters off-limits to the industrial fishing vessels currently sucking up the tiny shrimp-like krill, on which all Antarctic life relies.

In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe looked back at Earth from six billion kilometres away and took a historic selfie of our solar system. What it saw, according to renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan, was a pale blue dot.

Our planet is a blue planet, echoed David Attenborough, in his opening words to the BBCs landmark Blue Planet series. With over 70% of our world covered by water, this is no exaggeration. Our oceans can be seen from across the solar system.

The majority of this water falls outside of national borders. In fact, almost half of our planet is a marine natural wonder outside the boundaries of flags, languages and national divisions. These vast areas cover 230 million square kilometres, and they belong to us all. To give a sense of scale, thats the size of every single continent combined, with another Asia, Europe and Africa thrown in for good measure. The size of our oceans may seem overwhelming. Our collective responsibility to protect them, however, should not.

It wasnt long ago that the oceans were thought to be too vast to be irrevocably impacted by human actions, but the effects of overfishing, oil drilling, deep sea mining, pollution and climate change have shown that humans are more than up to the task of imperilling the sea and the animals that live there.

A humpback whale dives for krill in Wilhelmina Bay, off the Antarctic Peninsula. The creeping expansion of industrial fishing is targeting the one species on which practically every animal in the Antarctic relies: krill. Photograph: Charles Littnam/WWF/EPA

All of us who live on this planet are the guardians of these environments, not only to protect the wildlife that lives in them, but because the health of our oceans sustains our planet and the livelihoods of billions of people.

Heres the good news. The tide of history is turning. We on the blue planet are finally looking seriously at protecting the blue bits. Just a few months ago, in a stuffy room far from the sea, governments from around the world agreed to start a process to protect them: an ocean treaty.

This ocean treaty wont be agreed until at least 2020, but in the meantime momentum is already building towards serious and binding ocean protection. Just last year a huge 1.5 million sq km area was protected in the Ross Sea in the Antarctic. In a turbulent political climate, it was a momentous demonstration of how international cooperation to protect our shared home can and does work.

Over the next two weeks, the governments responsible for the Antarctic are meeting to discuss the future of the continent and its waters. While limited proposals are on the table this year, when they reconvene in 12 months time they have a historic opportunity to create the largest ever protected area on Earth: an Antarctic Ocean sanctuary. Covering the Weddell Sea next to the Antarctic peninsula, it would be five times the size of Germany, the country proposing it.

The Antarctic is home to a great diversity of life: huge colonies of emperor and Adlie penguins, the incredible colossal squid with eyes the size of basketballs that allow it to see in the depths, and the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale, which has veins large enough for a person to swim down.

The creeping expansion of industrial fishing is targeting the one species on which practically every animal in the Antarctic relies: krill. These tiny shrimp-like creatures are crucial for the survival of penguins, whales, seals and other wildlife. With a changing climate already placing wildlife populations in the Antarctic under pressure, an expanding krill industry is bad news for the health of the Antarctic Ocean. Even worse, the krill industry and the governments that back it are blocking attempts at environmental protection in the Antarctic.

Ocean sanctuaries provide relief for wildlife and ecosystems to recover, but its not just about protecting majestic blue whales and penguin colonies. The benefits are global. Recovering fish populations spread around the globe and only now are scientists beginning to fully understand the role that healthy oceans play in soaking up carbon dioxide and helping us to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Sanctuaries encourage vital biodiversity, provide food security for the billions of people that rely on our oceans, and are essential to tackling climate change. Our fate and the fate of our oceans are intimately connected.

Creating the worlds largest ever protected area, in the Antarctic Ocean, would be a signal that corporate lobbying and national interests are no match for a unified global call for our political leaders to protect what belongs to us all. The movement to protect over half our planet begins now, and it begins in the Antarctic.

John Sauven is director of Greenpeace

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Vast animal-feed crops to satisfy our meat needs are destroying planet

WWF report finds 60% of global biodiversity loss is down to meat-based diets which put huge strain on Earths resources

The ongoing global appetite for meat is having a devastating impact on the environment driven by the production of crop-based feed for animals, a new report has warned.

The vast scale of growing crops such as soy to rear chickens, pigs and other animals puts an enormous strain on natural resources leading to the wide-scale loss of land and species, according to the study from the conservation charity WWF.

Intensive and industrial animal farming also results in less nutritious food, it reveals, highlighting that six intensively reared chickens today have the same amount of omega-3 as found in just one chicken in the 1970s.

The study entitled Appetite for Destruction launches on Thursday at the 2017 Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, in conjunction with Compassion in World Farming (CIFW), and warns of the vast amount of land needed to grow the crops used for animal feed and cites some of the worlds most vulnerable areas such as the Amazon, Congo Basin and the Himalayas.

The report and conference come against a backdrop of alarming revelations of industrial farming. Last week a Guardian/ITV investigation showed chicken factory staff in the UK changing crucial food safety information.

Protein-rich soy is now produced in such huge quantities that the average European consumes approximately 61kg each year, largely indirectly by eating animal products such as chicken, pork, salmon, cheese, milk and eggs.

In 2010, the British livestock industry needed an area the size of Yorkshire to produce the soy used in feed. But if global demand for meat grows as expected, the report says, soy production would need to increase by nearly 80% by 2050.

The world is consuming more animal protein than it needs and this is having a devastating effect on wildlife, said Duncan Williamson, WWF food policy manager. A staggering 60% of global biodiversity loss is down to the food we eat. We know a lot of people are aware that a meat-based diet has an impact on water and land, as well as causing greenhouse gas emissions, but few know the biggest issue of all comes from the crop-based feed the animals eat.

With 23bn chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl on the planet more than three per person the biggest user of crop-based feed globally is poultry. The second largest, with 30% of the worlds feed in 2009, is the pig industry.

In the UK, pork is the second favourite meat after chicken, with each person eating on average 25kg a year in 2015 nearly the whole recommended yearly intake for all meats. UK nutritional guidelines recommend 45-55g of protein per day, but the average UK consumption is 64-88g, of which 37% is meat and meat products.

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These Animals Love To Dance! (15 Hilarious Memes)

I guess we all just gotta shake it when we hear that beat! 

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Wildlife workers rescue raccoon with a peanut butter jar stuck on its head

Weve heard about getting caught red-handed with your hand in the cookie jar, but what about getting caught with your head stuck in a peanut butter jar?

It sounds a little embarrassing, but thats what happened to raccoon out wandering in someone’s yard out on Long Island, New York.

The little creature was probably super hungry for some peanut butter, so he said why not just stick my whole entire head in the jar? Thatll surely get me every last drop.

Smooth thinking, raccoon. You didnt think about how youd get yourself out of there, huh?

Two wildlife rehabilitators, Cathy St Pierre and Bobby Horvath were quick to come to the raccoon’s aid, according to Newsday, and St Pierre uploaded two videos of the whole account to her Facebook page.

The two saviors were able to get a hold of the hungry raccoon, and they oiled his neck up with coconut oil to ease it off.

The trick worked and as soon as the jar was removed the raccoon made a quick getaway probably to do the same thing all over again in someone elses yard.

Animals will do that. If they smell something appetizing theyll put their heads in there to get the snack and wont have the dexterity to get themselves out, Horvath said in the Newsweek report.

Silly raccoon, peanut butters for humans.

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Bei Bei the panda climbing and falling over and over again is too relatable

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute describes itself as a leader in animal education.

The zoo’s prove to be a master educator once again, given the fact that on July 7 it tweeted a wonderfully informative video of a cute panda, Bei Bei, climbing and falling repeatedly.

The National Zoo says “pandas are adept climbers” that climb and subsequently fall as a form of play.

There’s something very sisyphean about this type of play where the pandas climb just to fall again. Kind of like a metaphor for life itself.

The play style is also both absolutely cute and absolutely ridiculous, which is kind of like a metaphor for pandas themselves.

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8 Times Animals Just Looked Fabulous!

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Youd come in and think, whats dead or escaped?: inside Britain’s most controversial zoo

Last summer inspectors revealed that nearly 500 animals had died in a three-year period. Can a new team turn South Lakes Safari around?

Its 2pm at South Lakes Safari zoo. Free entry! reads the cheerful banner tacked on to the rustic wooden entrance gate. Hand feed a baby giraffe! But these enticements seem to have missed their mark today: Im the only visitor. The enormous gift shop filled mostly with stuffed animals is empty of humans. The 20 family meal deals at the Maki zoo restaurant remain untouched. I trudge up the long, circular path, past sodden vultures hunched behind coiled barbed wire, pacing big cats and many upbeat, brightly coloured signs telling me the names all the animals have been given. The zoos miniature train is not in operation today, due to a lack of passengers.

Why is no one here? Perhaps because its a rainy, grey Wednesday in March. More likely, though, its the unsettling reports that have been appearing since last June.

When the zoos licence came up for renewal last summer, government inspectors revealed that 486 animals had died between December 2013 and September 2016, many of them in cruel circumstances. The zoo had already been in the headlines because, on 24 May 2013, a 23-year-old zookeeper, Sarah McClay, was mauled to death by a Sumatran tiger; the following year, the zoo was fined 255,500 plus fees by the courts for the health and safety breaches that resulted in her death. David Gill, the 55-year-old millionaire who founded the 50-acre zoo in 1994, was not personally found guilty.

Among the animal deaths highlighted by the inspectors last year were: two baby snow leopards, Miska and Natasja, found partially eaten by other leopards in their enclosure; a rhino crushed to death by its partner; a dead squirrel monkey stuck behind a radiator; an African spurred tortoise that had been electrocuted when it became entangled in electric fencing. Poison used to treat rat infestations had led to the death of two (unspecified) zoo animals. Lemurs and birds had been run over and killed by the miniature train. Visitors had sustained monkey bites.

The council demanded a more detailed inventory of animal deaths: inspectors found in the first six months of 2016 alone, five inca terns had died from exposure, an alpaca from hypothermia, a lemur drowned, a bird had been euthanised after its beak was broken by a macaw; 13 other animals had died from trauma, and three from starvation. A jaguar named Saka had chewed off its own paw after damaging it on broken glass and exposed nails. Gills lawyer said his client no longer wanted to run the facility, but did not want it to close before a new company had a licence approved.

In the same month the report was published, the Captive Animals Protection Society visited the zoo and published photographs of an emaciated kangaroo and penguins sweltering in the 29C summer heat in an empty pool.

Penguins shelter in an empty pool last summer. Photograph: Captive Animals Protection Society

Horrified members of the public in the UK and US set up petitions to close the zoo. RSPCA inspectors obtained a search warrant; they are still compiling a report of their findings. South Lakes was debated in parliament, with Andrew Rosindell, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on zoos, calling on the government to launch an inquiry. In March, the council that had granted Gill his licence every six years since 1994 turned down his application, with government inspectors citing overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and any sort of developed veterinary care. Gill, concluded the inspectors, was not a fit and suitable person to run a zoo.

But he appealed and the zoo stayed open under emergency measures, with management handed over to a newly formed group, Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd, who had been running the zoo since January. The new chief executive, Karen Brewer, had also served as chief executive under Gill. On 9 May, Barrow council voted to grant the company a four-year licence, after inspectors gave glowing reports of how the zoo had already been turned around.

It looked like a new dawn for the animals of South Lakes zoo, but for months I had been investigating disconcerting rumours about the new management.


Born and bred in Barrow-in-Furness, David Gill is a self-styled wrangler; the type often found working with tigers and crocodiles on TV or hunting them down on safari. His father was a local magistrate, his mother a confectioner. He started collecting animals as a child, claiming people would travel for miles to see Daltons Doctor Doolittle with his raccoons, goats and wallabies.

In 1994, Barrow council granted him a zoo licence and Gill opened the park in Dalton-in-Furness, a neglected Cumbrian semi-peninsula. Over 22 years, the park grew, now housing around 1,500 animals (there has never been an official head count, even though they are mandatory under the Zoo Licensing Act ). By 2014, the zoo was bringing in 250,000 visitors a year and generating 3m.

Zoo founder David Gill. In March, inspectors declared him not a fit person to run a zoo.

Three years after opening the zoo, Gill left his wife and two children for a 16-year-old zoo keeper whom he later married. After they split, he had two children with another zoo keeper. In 2008, his affair with a married woman ended when her jealous husband was jailed for stabbing Gill in the neck. Gill is now married to a former beauty queen from Peru, Frieda Rivera Schreiber, whom he made vet coordinator at South Lakes soon after their wedding in 2014. She has never held a British veterinary licence and her Peruvian vets licence was declared void in her home country.

Gills zoo faced problems as early as 1997, when Zimba, a rare three-tonne white rhino, escaped from its enclosure into a car park, fell into a ditch and was shot dead. Gill was fined 10,000 by Kendal magistrates court for endangering the public and failing to have adequate barriers. In 2001, a former employee, Lara Kitson, sued for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination. She had expressed concerns about handling raw meat and climbing a high ladder to feed the big cats while heavily pregnant; Gill had allegedly asked whether she wanted to continue with the pregnancy. He denies this, saying he didnt know she was pregnant. The tribunal ruled in her favour and awarded her 30,000 in compensation.

Despite these setbacks, Gill opened another zoo, in Queensland, Australia, in 2004. But the 80-acre Mareeba Wild Animal Park shut just five months later, after Queensland authorities, flanked by a TV crew, carried out a dawn raid, looking for evidence of animal cruelty and permit breaches. Gill claimed it was a set-up by an incompetent local authority, but the case reached the Australian parliament. The zoo went into receivership for two years and eventually found another buyer.

Gill was charged with animal cruelty, failure to pay his debts and licensing and planning irregularities, and later fined A$10,000 (5,730). But by that time hed left the country. Gill told the North-West Evening Mail the three charges were technical in nature and related only to not reporting events rather than the events themselves.

Animals they can make money from lemurs, camels, giraffes have the greatest chance of being fed, a former employee says. Photograph: Alamy

In Britain, he landed back on his feet. Four days after Mareeba zoo was debated in the Australian parliament, an article in the Westmorland Gazette celebrated Gills plans for a massive expansion of South Lakes Wild Animal Park, including going into great apes, gorillas and orangutans.

The trail of disasters continued too long to list in full here, but recorded in the zoo inspectors mandatory yearly reports, the minutes of Barrow council licensing committee meetings and, very occasionally, the local press. In August 2006, an escaped South American goat was captured using a tranquilliser dart after it wandered into a garden. The following month, a government inspector said escapes were a matter for concern and recommended procedures to prevent animals using an overhead walkway as an escape route. In 2008, a fire killed 30 lemurs. In 2010, a capuchin monkey escaped for five days and was recaptured in a church; two months later, the council renewed Gills six-year zoo licence.

In 2012, after the zoo recorded its busiest year ever (60,000 visitors in a month), Gill received planning permission to expand. Two prohibition notices the council slapped on the zoo at that time, over a lack of hand-washing facilities and the display of snakes in the eating area, seemed not to be a cause for concern, especially to Gill, who celebrated his 51st birthday with a self-published autobiography, Nine Lives: One Mans Insatiable Journey Through Love, Life And Near Death.

How can all of this happen and he still have a licence? asks Wendy Husband, whose zoo consultancy was asked to clear up the mess in Australia. She has been closely following Gills progress in the UK: In Australia, hed be shut down. He should have been watched more closely. It seems he was given free rein.

Husband describes what happened after Gill abandoned Mareeba. It was really shocking to the community, she says. He had charmed them all. He left without paying the local people who had built the zoo. But they were amazing. They organised themselves into a base of volunteers [to keep the zoo open]. They helped provide food; farmers would provide meat. Every day, wed get fresh fruit delivered, avocados.

Many of her observations echo the inspectors reports on South Lakes. The Mareeba zoo looked good but it was poorly built and dangerous. Its a cyclone region: the fences didnt hold up to that.

So how, despite so many failures and warnings, did South Lakes zoo stay open? Barrow borough council, which repeatedly reissued its licence, does not respond. I call three times in two days. The third time, the operator tells me, Weve been instructed not to put through anyone calling about South Lakes.


In May 2013, Fiona McClay was on holiday in her native Scotland, when her sister, who she was with, began getting messages on her phone. We were in Edinburgh, McClay says. I didnt have internet on my phone, but my sister did and she started getting urgent Facebook messages. The zoo didnt hold next-of-kin contact numbers and Gill was away. He had gone to one of those medieval re-enactment weekends in Derby. A member of staff was trying to find me on Facebook. McClay called the police. She was told her daughter had been seriously injured and was unconscious. She had been airlifted to Preston hospital. The sisters drove as fast as they could, but by the time they reached her, Sarah had died.

When your daughter goes to work at a zoo, you assume shell be protected: keeper Sarah McClay, who was killed by a tiger. Photograph:

Initially, McClay was told that Sarah, who worked as a carer for the big cats, had been killed by a tiger because she hadnt followed protocol and had walked into the enclosure. Gill told the press she had made an unwise and baffling mistake. It took three years for the truth to come out at inquest: Sarah was in a staff corridor next to the tiger enclosure when the tiger attacked and mauled her a bolt on a gate was defective.

McClay has a picture of Sarah on the swings at the zoo as a child; South Lakes was the job of her dreams. She studied conservation science at university and had been working at the zoo for two years when she died. You assume when your daughter goes to work at a zoo, shell be protected, McClay says.

She heard nothing from Gill when her daughter died, she says. Staff told her hed initially banned them from attending the funeral. (Gill denies this, and says in his recollection, she was contacted by him.) Three weeks ago, Brewer approached her about setting up a memorial in Sarahs name, but McClay found the suggestion inappropriate.

She now campaigns for changes in zoo legislation. There needs to be a central body monitoring zoos, undercover inspections, higher minimum safety standards, and the police should have the power to shut a zoo down. Telling a zoo, Oh, you need to do something isnt good enough. Barrow council will never close down South Lakes, McClay says. No matter what. It brings in too much revenue.


Barrow council still wont take my calls, but I finally hear from someone who knows the zoo and wants to talk to me. It became very evident very quickly that things werent right, a former South Lakes keeper says, agreeing to talk on condition of anonymity. He came to the zoo with extensive animal training and more than 10 years experience in animal welfare: It takes a lot a lot to shock me, he says. There was no committee or board, so the management had complete power and control. The food was inadequate. On a daily basis, I had to go down to the supermarkets to pick up out-of-date leftovers. The baboons were being fed Danish pastries and other cakes, and all the bread left behind in the rhino enclosure. The birds would get dog biscuits. The white gibbons would be living on a diet of 50% seed, not 70 to 80% fruit and vegetables thats what it said they were getting on the signs outside the enclosure. When I threw out some rotting ham and eggs, another member of staff rummaged through the bins and reported me for wasting food.

Three tortoises died during his short tenure, including Goliath, the one who was electrocuted. I emailed David Gill and Karen Brewer at least three times. I tried to explain tortoises need very high temperatures and UV. They couldnt keep warm, so couldnt metabolise their food and were probably suffering from malnutrition. But Gill said hed kept tortoises for 20 years and it was fine to keep them outside in the British summer.

The former keeper says he never saw evidence of vaccination or worming treatments. A dead reindeer was fed to the big cats. Lemurs would access the tiger enclosure and get killed. When an animal died, there was no real procedure. Without a British vets licence, Schreiber is not supposed to carry out surgery, but this years inspections discovered she had carried out 150 postmortems. Gill says her role was administrative and did not involve veterinary procedures on any live animal. He adds that all postmortems were authorised by the zoo vets, then checked by the vets and signed off.

It became very evident very quickly that things werent right, a former keeper says of the zoo, pictured in March. Photograph: Mark Pinder for the Guardian

The former employee remembers seeing Schreiber carrying out a postmortem on an antelope in the meat prep area. Id see kangaroos, just skin and bones. Staff with no training, no clue. The enclosures were filthy. It was depressing. Youd come in in the morning and think, Whats dead or escaped?

He finally resigned, shaken, after two brown spider monkeys attacked a third, Pablo, and ripped his face to bits. Pablo was stitched up a bit and put in a separate area, but they just left him there for days. I repeatedly asked why they werent putting him somewhere safe. He died of septicaemia.

Witnessing all this, he says, makes you feel responsible, so you feel part of the crime, and because of that people shut down. Death becomes the norm. Does he have faith in the new company? Its basically a rotten apple, and even if you take out the core, its still a rotten apple.


I speak to another whistleblower, this time on the record. James Potter is adamant that things havent changed under the new management. On 23 March, Potter, who had worked at the zoo for two years, marched into Barrow town hall and delivered a three-page typed statement detailing all the malpractices he says he witnessed, nearly all of which have taken place since Brewer took charge in January: If anything, its worse now.

Potter started out as a volunteer a couple of days a week, helping clean paths and other odd jobs. It felt like a dream when South Lakes then hired him to work full-time as an animal carer: preparing food for the animals in the mornings, dealing with pest control in the afternoons. Then I found out what it was actually like.

Potters statement details the events of the past four months: an enormous rat infestation; how he was regularly told to use poison in areas where it was not safe to do so. He reveals how unnecessary deaths at the zoo are continuing: Under the new managements orders, in the early months of the year I was instructed to reduce the food for the female babirusa (an endangered species of pig native to Indonesia) because they thought she was getting too fat. It turned out she was pregnant. She had her baby recently, and that baby is now dead after being removed from its mother at a few days old. The animal deaths at the zoo are still continuing under the new management, including the adult male babirusa, a mongoose, leopard tortoise, scarlet ibis, rhea and an emaciated penguin. Food shortages are rife: I have been made [by] Ms Brewer to feed the animals mouldy bread in the past, and have been reprimanded for throwing it away, I was regularly having to beg for scraps from the [zoo] restaurant kitchen just to give the animals some fresh food.

If it hadnt been about the animals, I wouldnt have stayed as long as I did: James Potter, zoo worker turned whistleblower. Photograph: Ron Whitrow for the Guardian

Potter says he was also forced to supplement the food supply from local supermarkets. I have on many occasions had to buy food myself this can be verified at Tesco on Rawlinson Street, who have actually saved reduced price fruit and veg for me just to include fresh food in the diets.

Potter is speaking on the phone from his car. He and his wife are stuck in traffic on the motorway with all their belongings. Theyre moving away, out of the county, to a new life and new jobs.

Going on the record was a huge risk South Lakes staff are contractually banned from even taking photographs on site but Potter is in a chipper mood, relieved at finally having talked. In his two years there, 10 keepers left the zoo. If it hadnt been about the animals, I wouldnt have stayed as long as I did. I went to management and pushed as much as I could. At the end of the day, its supposed to be run for the welfare of the animals.

Potter describes a chaotic atmosphere. Breeding and culling would go in cycles, with adult baboons culled to make room for cuter babies: Id come into work and be told, Youve got to drop some of the food because weve culled them. Theyre not so keen on baby animals once they grow up they cost. Higher-status animals have the greatest chance of being fed: There is a pecking order. The ones who are more highly prized are the ones they can make money from lemurs, camels, giraffes that the public pay to hand-feed. Id be told, Give them the nicer looking carrots. (When this was put to Brewer, she made no comment about the pecking order, but said that animal husbandry had improved since January.)

Before Potters signed statement, the council claimed theyd received no formal complaints about the zoo since 2016 not one person had come forward. Potter disputes this. Id been on at the council for a year. Another keeper sent them a video of poor Pablo [the spider monkey] but didnt even get an acknowledgment. (Again the council wont respond to my requests for a comment.)

Id see kangaroos, just skin and bones. Staff with no training, no clue: a kangaroo at the zoo in 2016. Photograph: Captive Animals Protection Society

Brewer hit back at Potter in a statement claiming he was dismissed due to concerns in relation to his ability to carry out his role and anger/attitude issues. On the question of animal food, she said, Since January, we no longer depend on donated food from supermarkets and that since mid-2016 they no longer use food from the zoo restaurant. Rat poison is used outside of animal areas; the babirusas death had nothing to do with nutritional change; and the other animal deaths were due to normal causes such as gout, social breakdown or acute septicaemia Whilst still upsetting, these reported deaths were the result of organ failure or infectious causes, and did not follow historical patterns of husbandry or management concerns. Other deaths are representative of a normal zoos mortality patterns.


Word is getting round. Another former member of staff wants to talk, as long as she can remain anonymous. She worked as an animal carer for several months in 2016. In May that year, she says, she sent a letter to the RSPCA after Pablo the spider monkey died. The RSPCA wrote back to say that the animals were having their needs met. (The RSPCA say they cannot comment due to data protection.) We told quite a few people, but people just believe his [Gills] crap, she says. Its a relief to talk to someone who wants to listen.

She tells me more horror stories: how there were never enough two-way radios and how frightening it was to be left in a dangerous animal enclosure without one; how staff would leave animals to die because it was cheaper than calling the vet to have them euthanised; how rampant inbreeding saw some of the primates born with disturbing genetic defects, their heads the wrong size, at funny angles on their necks things like that. You could see the animals wasting away in front of you; they were malnourished and full of infections. The hippos had such dry skin it was cracking, but David Gill said that was natural in the wild. We wanted to bathe them, but he closed the indoor pool. Hed say, Why would you put them through that? The animals wouldnt touch the outdoor hippo pool: We werent allowed to clean it and it was full of excrement. Like a toilet.

The hippo pool would be cleaned only once every 12 months, before the yearly inspections. Karen would get us all in an hour early, brushing every path, cleaning all the enclosures. Because the zoo has no drainage system, the stuff was shovelled into a wheelbarrow and poured somewhere the inspectors wouldnt see. The inspections would only last for two hours anyway.

The experience has thrown her confidence in working with animals. It went against everything Id learned at university. I left because if you work there, youre the one killing them.


Why is it so hard to regulate zoos? Licences are granted only after a formal local authority inspection; the team must include one or more Defra-approved inspectors. Once open, all zoos are inspected annually by inspectors appointed by the local authority. But research by the Captive Animals Protection Society charity says that 70% of councils with zoos have missed at least one inspection since 2005, and 74% of inspection reports identify recurring unsatisfactory issues. A separate report by the Born Free foundation points to widespread regulatory failure, with only a quarter of zoos maintaining animal welfare standards. No public body will take responsibility. The only watchdogs are these two charities, whose findings are all too easily written off as anti-zoo.

Virginia McKenna, Born Frees founder and one of the worlds most respected conservationists, says that the troubles at South Lakes shine a light on what is wrong with zoos and the laws governing them in the UK today. It is clear that the problems at the zoo developed, to all intents and purposes unchecked, over a very long period, and now the council consider it sufficient to ensure the safety of the animals, staff and visitors by simply switching to a new licence holder. I am utterly disgusted. An independent review of the zoo licensing system is long overdue.

A white-handed gibbon at the zoo in 2016. Animal deaths last year included a squirrel monkey stuck behind a radiator. Photograph: Alamy

I call the council again: maybe they can tell me what happened over Christmas 2015, when three squirrel monkeys were stolen from the zoo in April 2016 the zoo told the council this was more than likely perpetrated by an ex-employee. Or why, in 2013, when Kadi the lion cub was killed by its father, zoo staff neither recorded it in the studbook nor informed concerned members of the public (some of whom had sponsored Kadi from birth), instead claiming theyd moved him to another zoo. This time, Im put on hold for just over three minutes. No journalists, the receptionist says when she comes back on the line.

A few days later, I try again: my 11th call. I want to know whos bankrolling Cumbria Zoo Company Ltd. In March, Brewer told the council that the new management didnt have a penny in the bank. The cost of applying for a zoo licence from Barrow borough council is 7,900, plus an 111,000 annual maintenance charge if application is successful, plus staff wages. I also want to know why council inspectors have had such a radical change of heart about Brewer. Only two months before awarding her a licence, they had declared themselves unconvinced that this transfer of power was enough to change conditions. Between November 2014 and July 2015, nine different management teams have been proposed to [the local authority] to manage the zoo, the report says. But there has always been a single common denominator behind all these changes; [David Gill] continued to run the zoo, either directly or indirectly, with [Karen Brewer] being presented as manager or CEO.

A receptionist tells me that head of licensing, Graham Barker, is away on holiday. Theres no one else whos dealing with this.


Brewer has agreed to meet me at the zoo. It is just over a month before the council announces its decision to grant her a licence. Id assumed we would be meeting one-on-one, so Im surprised when she leads me into a small meeting room where five other members of the new team sit in an awkward semi-circle. They seem nervous. Theres no one more passionate about the welfare of these animals, Brewer tells me by way of introduction. Theres nobody that knows these animals better than these guys.

Brewer worked for Gill for 15 years, starting off as an admin assistant and rising to become zoo manager, zoo educator, zoo and office manager and finally CEO. Gill was often travelling, so Brewer would sit in for him at inspections or council meetings. Poring over minutes from the last four or five years, Id discovered it was usually Brewer reassuring the council that things at the zoo were going to change. But she says now she has no contact with Gill except through her lawyer. Both sets of lawyers work for the same firm.

Chief executive Karen Brewer, who says of her team: theres no one more passionate about the welfare of these animals. Photograph: Cumbrian Newspapers Limited

The team introduce themselves. The big cats keeper, the health and safety coordinator, the deputy keeper, the maintenance manager, the accountant: most have worked here for between five and 10 years, arriving as novices. The vet isnt here because he works on an on-call basis only.

Were staff aware of the animal deaths, I ask. I think what this company is extremely keen to do is to look to the future, Brewer says. Since weve been in charge on the 12th January, weve brought in a number of changes, be it welfare, husbandry, dietary, veterinary, and weve surrounded ourselves with a number of zoo consultants who are extremely renowned within the zoo world, including vets, systems advisers.

I try again. How could you have been working at this zoo for so long and not share responsibility? The one thing we do have now is complete transparency and openness, regardless of what happens whether an animal dies, whether its sick. Brewer adds: People are learning.

So David Gill is entirely responsible for what happened?

I didnt say that.

So you share responsibility for what happened?

Were a company sat in front of you, making sure there is a future for this zoo. And theres nobody more passionate about the animals in their care than the team of keepers looking after them. The other staff nod in silence.

What happened when an animal died, I ask. I read aloud from the report about Miskin and Natasja, the snow leopard cubs who were discovered partly eaten. Were they there?

I was there, says Yaz Walker, the big cat keeper. It wasnt any fault of our own. It was

Brewer cuts in: At that point in time, we obviously got our meat supplied from a number of sources. At that time, we used to take meat from abattoirs, obviously. It was thought that there was some issue with the meat the cubs had eaten. Since that day, the only meat we take in is shop meat.

But why were the cubs found partially eaten?

Even in the wild that would happen, Walker says.

Its survival of the fittest, isnt it? adds deputy head keeper Kathy Black.

Brewer suggests I talk to her lawyer if I want to know more. When I ask whether any of the staff expressed concerns to Gill about how he was running the zoo, Brewer says, Thats a question I dont want asked, because thats between me and David. Who was in charge when he was away? She says: Its not something we even want to get involved with because you start pointing fingers and at the end of the day were not about that.

How many animals have died since 12 January? I couldnt tell you that off the top of my head, Brewer says. I could tell you that information obviously is free information everything is completely free and transparent. But I couldnt tell you that right now.


Since June last year, Gill hasnt spoken to the press apart from one statement through his lawyer. Suddenly, two days after the council make their decision, I receive a message: he wants to talk. Ten minutes later, hes on the phone: upset, unrepentant and full of allegations against Brewer. In 2015, I gave up animal management altogether, so I could concentrate on the business side of things and the building of the new part of the zoo, he claims. Karen Brewer was made CEO. She employed everybody, oversaw standards, management, marketing. She was in charge of everything, including animal welfare. And for the last 15 years, Ive only spent six months of the year in the UK, so for the last 15 years Karen Brewer has been managing the zoo for half the year. Ive driven the policy, she does management. I wasnt even at the zoo for all these inspections. Karen Brewer handled it all, because it was her responsibility.