What amounts to a zoo and what are the legal implications of keeping a zoo?

What is a zoo?

The Zoo Licensing Act 1981, as amended, defines a zoo as “an establishment where wild animals are kept for exhibition to the public otherwise than for the purposes of a circus and otherwise than in a pet shop.” The Act states that it “applies to any zoo to which members of the public have access, with or without charge for admission, on more than seven days in any period of 12 consecutive months”. It also applies to any zoo to which members of the public do not have access if a licence is already in force in respect of it.

What is a “wild animal”?

The Act defines “wild animals” simply as “animals not normally domesticated in Great Britain” and, therefore, is not restricted to animals which are savage by their nature.

No further guidance is given in the Act and, therefore, it will ultimately be for the Courts to interpret the definition as to what a wild animal is. In doing so, the Courts will apply the rules of Statutory Interpretation under which they are ordinarily required to interpret words literally i.e. in accordance with their ordinary and natural meaning.

If the definition of wild animals is given its literal meaning, however, this could lead to absurd consequences in some cases. For example, a fish tank in a dentist’s waiting room could fall within the definition of a zoo. In such cases a Court may be inclined to consider the purpose of the Act and the Act as a whole in interpreting the individual wording.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recognised the problems in defining what is a wild animal and has issued some guidance as to what animals they consider to be covered by the Act. However, such guidance is not legally binding.

What amounts to an “exhibition to the public”?

The Act does not define what amounts to an “exhibition” or what “public” means. Again, this will be left for the Courts to decide.

DEFRA has issued some guidance as to what amounts to an “exhibition” and what amounts to “public” for the purposes of the Act. Again, such guidance is not legally binding.

For the purpose of defining “exhibition” DEFRA’s view is that it is important to consider the reason why the animals are kept. It is their view that if the purpose, or one of the purposes, of keeping the animals is that people (other than the owner or keeper) should see them, then the animals are “kept for exhibition”. They also take the view that the Act does not apply where “animals merely can be seen by the public”, for example from a highway.

For the purpose of defining “public” DEFRA’s view is that it is appropriate to adopt the meaning given in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

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For more information on:

  • Are there any exemptions to the Act?
  • What are the legal implications of keeping a zoo?
  • Licences
  • Conservation measures
  • Inspections