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. They take the view that if a zoo is only open to members of a private club or organisation, such a zoo may fall outside of the Act.

Are there any exemptions to the Act?

Circuses and pet shops are excluded from the definition of a zoo. A circus is defined “as a place where animals are kept or introduced wholly or mainly for the purpose of performing tricks or manoeuvres at that place”. A pet shop is defined as “a premises holding a licence or requiring a licence under the Pet Animals Act 1951”.

These are the only exemptions. However, a person can apply to the Secretary of State for a “dispensation” under the Act. The Act provides that dispensations can be granted in relation to small zoos or where only a small number of animals are kept. The Act gives no guidance, however, as to what amounts to a small zoo or what amounts to a small number of animals and again this will be for the Courts to interpret.

DEFRA has indicated that, whilst each case is considered on its merits, dispensations will normally be made in relation to traditional deer parks; very small collections of llamas and alpacas; and small collections of small, non-hazardous and non-conservation sensitive wild species, excluding mammals.

What are the legal implications of keeping a zoo?


Where a person keeps a zoo he must, in accordance with the Act, obtain a licence from his local authority. If he fails to do so the local authority has the power to close down the zoo and, upon conviction by the Magistrates Court, he may be fined.

Conservation measures

The Act stipulates that certain conservation measures must be implemented in zoos.

It is a requirement that a zoo participates in at least one of the activities set out in the Act. These are the participation in research from which conservation benefits accrue to species of wild animals; training in relevant conservation skills; the exchange of information relating to the conservation of species of wild animals; where appropriate, the breeding of wild animals in captivity; and where appropriate, the repopulation of an area with, or the reintroduction into the wild of, wild animals.

The Act also requires zoos to promote public education and awareness in relation to the conservation of biodiversity. Generally this will be achieved by a zoo providing information about the species of wild animals kept by them and their natural habitats.

Zoos are also, under the Act, required to accommodate their animals under conditions which aim to satisfy the biological and conservation requirements of the species to which they belong.

The Act also requires zoos to implement measures to prevent the escape of animals and put in place measures to be taken in the event of any escape or unauthorised release.

Zoos are required, under the Act, to take measures to prevent the intrusion of pests and vermin into the zoo and to keep up to date records of the zoo’s collection.


Under the Act local authorities are required to carry out periodic inspections of licensed zoos.