Longleat Safari Park has come under fire after reports it put down a lion, lioness and four cubs last month.
Longleat, located near Warminster less than 9 miles from Nunney, was the UK’s first safari park when it opened in 1966.
The house, safari park and attractions on the Marquess of Bath’s estate are among Britain’s most popular tourist attractions. Last month Longleat won Best Large Visitor Attraction at the prestigious South West Tourism Excellence Awards.
A whistleblower told The Mail on Sunday that the park killed six Longleat lions – including four cubs – in early January, during the safari park’s winter closure. The Longleat lions were put down under supervision from vets using a lethal liquid injected with a tranquiliser gun.
The Longleat lions culled included a vasectomised adult male called Henry, a lioness called Louisa – brought over from Noah’s Ark Zoo near Wraxall in Somerset in 2011 – and four of her cubs.
The news of the Longleat lions broke on the day Copenhagen Zoo put down an healthy 18-month old giraffe called Marius, citing European regulations on inter-breeding. The cull went ahead despite other zoos offering a home for the animal and an international petition – leading to outrage on social media.
The Mail on Sunday quoted a spokesman for the safari park blaming overpopulation among its famous lions for an increasing in violent behaviour. The spokesperson said that this had led to ‘health risks’.
The spokesman told the newspaper: “There has been a large increase in pregnancies among the Longleat lions, resulting in a 40 per cent increase in population. This has resulted in excessive violent behaviour, putting 21 of them at risk.”
“Sadly one lion, Henry, had to be put down earlier this year due to injuries from an attack within the enclosure. The further Longleat lions referred to were put down due to associated and severe health risks.”
“A further five Longleat lions from this enclosure will be moved to other premises. Longleat takes the utmost care in trying to protect the welfare and safety of all its animals.”
There is no suggestion that the Longleat lions suffered, nor is culling animals a welfare issue if it is done properly.
Experts in zoo management and big cats questioned, however, why Longleat had not used contraceptive methods more effectively.
Others took to Twitter to condemn Longleat’s decision. Local Twitter account @WarminsterWire wrote: “Way to go #Longleat – 60 yrs of conservation reputation destroyed by one stupid, short-term financially motivated decision. #Shame”
@Bonzodoggy added: “@Longleat You halved your second enclosure to squeeze in cheetahs at the same time as having a deliberate breeding programme for cute cubs.”
@Dawn1984dawn from Frome said: “It’s bloody awful Longleat doing that. My 8-year old daughter is very upset and doesn’t want to go there again.”
After midnight on Sunday night the tourist attraction took to its Facebook page to explain its decision to have six Longleat lions put down: “We understand that many of you will have been affected by the news that appeared late yesterday evening. Below is a full statement which we hope will help you to understand our reasoning:”
“The lioness Louisa arrived at Longleat in 2011 as an 18-month-old cub. At the age of 13 months, at the collection where she was previously held, Louisa exhibited neurological clinical signs which were thought to have been caused by inadequate nutrition leading to hypovitaminosis A. This was treated at the time but never fully resolved itself and she continued to exhibit clinical signs of head tilt and tremors throughout her life.
“Despite suitable nutrition these neurological signs were present in her cubs, which were clearly distinct from other litters in the pride as they all individually exhibited adverse neurological signs such as ataxia, incoordination and odd aggressive behaviour that were not considered normal or appropriate compared to other animals within the collection.”
“Reviewing the genetic lineage of Louisa and her cubs it was found both Louisa’s parents exhibited relatively high levels of inbreeding, prior to arrival, at a grand parentage level and great-grand parentage level (in some cases grandparents and great grandparents being the same animals). Further reviews of the pathology of related animals revealed a high level of brain tumours, which had not previously been reported in lions, as well as a general failure of normal neurological development.”
“Longleat has never seen these problems in the many other cubs born here over the years and has an extremely good nutritional programme meaning that dietary inadequacies have never been an issue. The only consistent link with all these neurological developmental disorders has been Louisa and this was attributed to her confused and poorly managed genetic history prior to her arrival at Longleat.”
“Longleat believes it would not have been responsible to translocate these animals to another collection, nor would any responsible zoological collection accept this particular group of lions, with the known high associated risks of neurological disorders and other genetically related health issues being passed on to later generations.”
“After considering the pressures in the group, due to the recent increase in pregnancies, and the developmental disorders present in the cubs it was reluctantly decided that euthanasia was the responsible option for these individuals.”
“Henry was a separate case, and his injuries were a result of aggression from both his brother and Louisa, who attacked him on 7 January. His wounds were severe, and despite veterinary review and management, it was decided euthanasia was the only humane option on welfare grounds. These decisions involve communication with all of our current staff, management team and with independent external ethical reviews undertaken to ensure we are consistent with best practice.”