On November 14 2013 Steve Rowlands, owner of Tropical Inc, was convicted of 34 offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. A whistle-blower working with Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) revealed that behind public performances, parrots, snakes, tortoises, meerkats, coatis and other exotic animals were kept in dark, cramped, filthy, and in the words of the judge, "despicable" conditions.
Lee Hopgood MBE, RSPCA Chief Inspector for Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, said: "This was a serious case of animal neglect involving over 70 exotic animals ... we found all manner of animals squashed into corners and living in completely inappropriate ways. It was heartbreaking to see."
The case was indefensible. Rowlands admitted he made mistakes, was handed a 12-month sentence suspended for two years, made to pay £6,000 in legal costs, £100,000 in boarding costs, and given 200 hours community service. Passing sentence Deputy District Judge Nalla Lawrence said: "He has learnt his lesson... This prosecution has prompted him to wake up."
In avoiding jail and not being prevented from keeping or working with animals, many felt the sentencing was light. CAPS Director Liz Tyson, maintained: "We firmly believe that the defendant should have been disqualified from keeping animals altogether." With the company continuing to trade, many were disappointed in the law. Those reading between the lines saw that the decision ensured rehoming fees were minimised, animals were not euthanased, and fines would be paid back in the future.
On July 29 2015, Eastnor Castle announced that Tropical Inc would be part of their Exotic Animals Week (August 9-13).CAPS made an "URGENT ACTION ALERT!" through Facebook, initiating an intense wave of social media pressure. After just one day, Eastnor Castle cancelled the event. CAPS have pledged to continue campaigning for the abolition of "mobile zoos". For more details see, 'Who Brings the Zoo to You?'
In the current political climate, the prospect of the government introducing abolitionist animal-related law is unlikely. Lobbying for such laws is a time-consuming process. If the law cannot be changed, what can be done? Who can ensure that the Five Freedoms of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are being met behind the closed doors of the 300 or so animal encounter companies in the UK? The answer is Local Authorities (LA). LA's hold the key in the form of the Performing Animals Registration (PAR), more widely known as the Performing Animals Licence (PAL).
A remnant of Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925, the registration is a fee paid to the local council which registers animals used by animal encounter companies. At present PAR is inconsistent, lacks clarity, is far too lenient, and lacking on the enforcement front. Some councils, for example, insist they are compulsory. Others do not. The registration is free for some. Others pay a nominal once in a lifetime fee. Once registered, the council can inspect the living quarters of encounter animals. Some councils, inspect three times a year, others rarely visit at all.
The Performing Animals Registration is ripe for reform and in desperate need of standardisation. An update on the government website on November 2014 suggests that reform is on the horizon.
The past prosecution of Tropical Inc is not representative of the profession or exotic animal keeping. Many reputable animal encounter companies operating at a high welfare standard are seeking standardisation and welcome change. Past attempts at self-regulating should get back on track through the introduction of codes of practice and standard operating procedures. Standardisation and transparency within the profession would help to share specialist knowledge with LA and RSPCA inspectors. (Those concerned about public safety should read, 'Animal instincts - exploring the demand for animal-assisted mental health therapy')
I strongly urge DEFRA, Elizabeth Truss MP, the Animal Welfare Team, and registration issuing Local Authorities to make the Performing Animals Registration a prerequisite to practice. I strongly urge them to introduce a compulsory standard annual fee across the UK, which in turn will fund a compulsory annual inspection on a local scale. I strongly urge councils to take note of the government guidelines ensuring that individuals charged with animal cruelty 'lose their registration', and 'be banned from exhibiting or training performing animals'. This is not about politics, or money, or the broader debate on exotic pets, it is about animal welfare. Together we can make a difference.