HC Deb 27 February 1991 vol 186 cc979-82 4.37 pm
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for the welfare of zoo animals.

I should say at the outset that the Bill has nothing whatever to do with working conditions in the Palace of Westminster.

The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 was a major and welcome step forward which has had a significant beneficial impact. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn), as well as to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who played an important role in promoting and improving the Bill.

British zoos are not particularly bad by international standards. Anyone who has visited zoos in developing countries will no doubt have seen harrowing scenes of animals in cramped unnatural conditions. I well remember not long ago going to a zoo in China and seeing a lioness in a dark, damp, concrete cell 6 ft by 12 ft being taunted by people throwing cigarette ends at her. In the same zoo I saw a lone panda, supposedly China's national animal, in a completely unsuitable concrete pen without a companion and with no greenery whatever.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

No bamboo shoots?

Mr. Oppenheim

Not one.

By contrast, good British zoos and safari parks make a genuine effort to look after their animals properly. Glasgow zoo is a good example of one that is attempting to take account of the animals' natural habits and instincts and to keep them occupied and stimulated, and I welcome those efforts.

Despite certain improvements as a result of the 1981 Act, major problems remain. They have been highlighted by an admirable organisation named Zoo Check, and by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' 1988 report, which was based on a large survey of British zoos. The problems they revealed relate not only to obvious shortcomings such as inadequate and cramped accommodation. Astonishingly, the RSPCA survey showed that only two zoos were required by their licence to ensure suitable social groupings of the animals that they kept. The RSPCA reported several instances of single representatives of highly social species, which is a very cruel practice.

Many zoos had failed to undertake the improvements required by their licences within the specified period, which shows the serious shortcomings of existing legislation. I will highlight one or two of them. Currently, most inspectors come from within the zoo industry, which is not always a good idea. Also, inspections are made only every four or six years, and they should be made annually. Mandatory standards should be established and enforced by law, and the implementation of inspectors' recommendations should also be mandatory in the granting of licences. Too often in the past, local authorities have ignored recommendations when granting licences.

My final point relates to the role of local authorities as licensing bodies. That is an unsatisfactory arrangement in many respects, because of the conflict of interests. Many local authorities own zoos, or lease land property to zoos—and often they are keen to keep open zoos as a local attraction, rather than to prioritise the welfare of the animals that the zoos contain. Consequently, they are frequently unwilling to take action where animals are kept in unsuitable conditions.

The Bill's main aim is to encourage amendments to the existing law, but I hope that, in the longer term, more thought will be given to the whole question of zoos. They were originally established to allow research, but that is no longer their prime purpose. Zoological research is often more satisfactorily undertaken in the field. Subsequently, zoos were considered primarily as places of entertainment and perhaps of education.

However, the superb wildlife programmes that are now shown on television make it no longer necessary or desirable to keep animals cooped up in cages just to entertain or educate. One must question the educational value to children of seeing animals cooped up in cages in an artificial environment, in conditions that cause them extreme stress. If we are to use animals for our entertainment, it is incumbent upon us to keep them in humane conditions.

In this day and age, the only real justification for zoos is as centres for the conservation of endangered species. I hope that the Government will consider that argument in relation to London zoo in particular. It has already received large sums of Government money, and is actively lobbying for even more. Such grants should be made conditional on major improvements, with the aim of turning zoos into centres for conservation, which could educate the public about the problems that lead to certain species being endangered. I hope that zoos in this country and throughout the world will develop in that way in future. If they do, they will carve out for themselves a valuable role in conservation and education.

Animals are not machines, but sensitive beings capable of feeling unhappiness. Man is the most powerful species on earth, and we have a duty of care towards weaker animals. If we are to keep animals in zoos, and if we consider ourselves to be a civilised society, that must be done in a way that respects the animals' psychology. I commend the Bill to the House.

3.45 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman intend to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Dalyell

Yes. I do not think that the ten-minute Bill procedure is the right way to go about this. I also take exception to a number of the implications in the speech that we have just heard.

For instance, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) referred to Glasgow zoo. Whatever may have been the case many years ago, Graham Law and others have made enormous advances——

Mr. Oppenheim

I said that.

Mr. Dalyell

The general implication was that there was considerable dissatisfaction. I listened to what the hon. Gentleman was saying. The truth is—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has the right to oppose the Bill.

Mr. Dalyell

The truth is that many zoos are trying to make great progress. The hon. Gentleman did not name any that were not. I give the example of Glasgow, which the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned. Many years ago, the bears had only 0.4 hectares of space, and kept strutting up and down. Now, they have 3 hectares. A whole series of challenges has been made for bears at that zoo; it is not true to say that the conditions are cramped. Most zoo owners are very enlightened, and are doing their best to improve matters.

Secondly, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism of the local authorities. Thirdly, and more important, he attacked the keeping of animals for research purposes. Contrary to his implication, the captive breeding programmes are very important. I pay tribute to those—for instance, Roger Wheater in Edinburgh—who have pioneered the system. We need not legislation but resources if we are to return to the desired system of proper landscaping: the Hagenback system.

Fourthly, if parliamentary progress is to be made, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman persuade some of the Ministers to devote more resources, to, for example, the natural parks system set up by the Scottish Natural Heritage Bill, which some of us are discussing in Committee every Tuesday and Thursday. That is the way to conduct research, and to implement what Markowitz and others have achieved in the field of animal psychology.

If the resources are there, the House should be discussing a number of other matters. We should currently be considering how to save many of the birds and animals that risk extinction because of what has happened in the Gulf—for example, the green turtle, the hawksback turtle and the Socotra cormorant—as well as the coral ecosystems. That is where the resources should go.

Finally, I oppose the Bill on the ground of what the hon. Gentleman said about inspections. If he is to talk of annual inspections, a representative of the Government had better say what resources will be devoted to the appointment of more inspectors, who will be capable of coping with the problems.

Perhaps my deepest objection is that we need not the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but legislation on the importation of birds for the bird trade, which reeks of a cruelty beyond anything in our zoos.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

That is true.

Mr. Dalyell

I am glad to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and others, who know a great deal about the subject. I am not a universal expert, but I know rather a lot about zoos. I took some soundings, because I did not know what the hon. Member for Amber Valley was going to say; on the basis of what he has said, especially by implication, I for one oppose his Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Phillip Oppenheim, Dame Janet Fookes, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. David Sumberg, Mr. James Pawsey, Mr. Andrew Mackay, Mr. Kenneth Hind, Mr. Lewis Stevens, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Cecil Franks, Mr. Michael Brown and Mr. David Evennett.

  1. ZOO ANIMAL WELFARE 43 words