What are the Legal Implications of Keeping a Zoo?

What is a zoo?

A zoo is defined by the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 (as amended) 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”.

This applies to any zoo to which members of the public have access on more than seven days in any period of 12 consecutive months, whether or not a fee is charged. The Act 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” as “animals not normally domesticated in Great Britain” and, therefore, is not restricted to animals which are savage by nature.

No further guidance is given in the Act, therefore, it will ultimately be for the courts to interpret the definition as to what a wild animal is. If the issue was to come before the courts, the courts will consider their ordinary and natural meaning, applying the usual rules of statutory interpretation.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recognised the problems in defining what is a wild animal and has issued guidance as to what animals it considers to be covered by the Act. However, this 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 for the Courts to interpret if necessary and, again, there is DEFRA guidance on these definitions. For the purpose of defining “exhibition”, DEFRA’s view is that it is important to consider the reason for keeping the animals: if the purpose, or one of the purposes, of keeping the animals is so that other people should see them, then the animals are “kept for exhibition”. DEFRA 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 – that if a zoo is only open to members of a private club or organisation, it 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 “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?


A zoo-keeper must obtain a licence from the local authority under the Act. All conditions of the zoo licence must be complied with.

If no license is obtained, the local authority has the power to close down the zoo. Furthermore, it is a criminal offence to run a zoo without a licence and, on conviction in the Magistrates Court, a fine of up to £2,500 may be imposed.

The licence must be displayed at the zoo entrance. If it is not, a fine of up to £1,000 may be imposed.

Conservation measures

The Act requires various conservation measures to be implemented in zoos, including that the zoo participates in at least one activity as 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 required to accommodate their animals under conditions which aim to satisfy the biological and conservation requirements of the species to which they belong.

Zoos must implement measures to prevent the escape of animals, and measures to be taken in the event of any escape or unauthorised release. They must also 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.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.