Details of the neglect and cruelty inflicted upon animals at the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria were today reported widely after councillors rejected an application for a new licence for the zoo where almost 500 animals died within four years.
David Gill, who founded the zoo in 1994, had his claim rejected unanimously by Barrow Borough Council’s licensing regulatory committee. The deaths at the Dalton-in-Furness between 2013 and 2016 were revealed in a report submitted to the panel.
The story was picked up by Sky News as presenter Kay Burley interviewed the local MP, John Woodcock.
What followed was a hostile exchange where the journalist appeared determined to suggest the council and MP were “complicit” in the acts by not speaking out sooner.
Woodcock, a Labour MP, appeared baffled by Burley’s apparent attempt to extract a confession, repeatedly pointing to letting the inquiry run as it revealed the full extent of the cruelty. He also questioned the “level of hostility” the Sky News anchor was displaying.
It led to this bizarre exchange:
Burley: “I put it to you, Mr Woodcock, ignorance is no defence, and the council should have acted before it did, at least the council should have acted, if not the local MP.”
Woodcock: “Well the council could only work with the evidence that it has got. As you ask these questions I am going to go back and study whether in my view the council could have acted faster, but I do question why quite the level of hostility towards me on this programme.”
Burley: “Oh please, you’re a public servant, you have to answer these questions, big boy pants on.”
Woodcock: “Kay, I’m not sure whether, oh never mind ...”
The conversation that led up to the fall-out saw Burley attack the council for a lack of “checks and balances”, and ask why they didn’t do anything earlier if “the council could see what was happening”. The MP’s response was given short shrift.
Woodcock: “The council have found it difficult to get the proper access ...”
Burley: “Buy a ticket!”
Woodcock made clear that superficially it did not look like a “failing zoo”. “It’s what happens behind the scenes,” he said. “Which as more and more evidence has come out has shown a level of neglect that is completely unacceptable.”
After Burley asked how long he had been aware of the problems, Woodcock pointed to “isolated incidents” and the owner’s claims he was being “politically persecuted by a council” while they were “just trying to do a basic job of upholding health and safety”. It got another highly-charged response.
Burley: “So you were hoodwinked then? Is that what you are saying?”
Woodcock: “I have not sought to make a determination on a quasi-judicial process the health and safety committee have gone on to.”
Burley, who was not satisfied with “long, lengthy answers telling me why it’s not your fault, why it’s not the council’s fault”, suggested he should have “stood up in the House of Commons and said this is completely unacceptable”.
“Everyone is blaming the owner. Of course, he is to blame, others are complicit, surely?,” she added.
Woodcock replied the “scale of cruelty has only just come to light recently”, adding: “You didn’t like that answer and you cut through it. I think it is important, and I took a decision very early on that I was not going to insert myself in to a quasi-judicial process that the licensing committee has gone through.
“Now they have made their judgement, I think it is the right time to speak up and say this must never be allowed to happen again.”
After Woodcock explained the dramatic pictures being broadcast were revealed as part of the evidence presented to the inquiry, Burley fired off another sharp question.
Burley: “So are you saying you did know, or didn’t know?”
Woodcock: “I’m saying I did not know about the level of cruelty and neglect.”
Some will argue the interview represented proper journalist scrutiny. Others that it was grandstanding by a London-based broadcaster coming late to the issue. In any case, it divided opinion (Burley re-tweeted both positive and negative comments).