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court ref no: 0741/96 ...
court ref no: 0741/96

A Kent zoo where a keeper was mauled to death by a tiger faces a high court challenge to its practice of allowing 'contact sessions' with adult wildcats.

Hugh Carlisle QC, counsel for Canterbury City Council, which is bringing the case against Howletts Zoo, owned by millionaire John Aspinall, described the practice as 'absurd' and 'ludicrous'.

And he added that safeguards agreed by the zoo to prevent similar tragedies 'could never be enforceable' because they were 'impractical'.

London's high court heard the council had challenged working practices at the zoo, based near Canterbury, Kent, after the horrific death of keeper Trevor Smith on November 13, 1994.

Mr Carlisle said: 'He was killed by a large Siberian tiger called Balkash. He was working alone in the tiger enclosure, carrying out cleaning work and was unarmed save for a bucket and spade.

'A witness saw the larger tiger of the two in the enclosure rear up and put its paws either side of his shoulders.

'The keeper shouted but the tiger ran off dragging the keeper with him.

'Help was called and the tiger was driven off. The keeper was covered in blood and was found to be dead.

'Death had been caused by a spinal fracture consistent with a tiger bite.'

After the tragedy a senior environmental officer for the city council served a notice under the Health and Safety at Work Act ordering the zoo to prohibit keepers entering the wildcat enclosures.

But the zoo challenged the notice at an industrial tribunal hearing and won its case by a majority after setting out a new scheme which, it claimed, would still allow keepers contact with adult tigers, but prevent a similar accident occurring.

The scheme, branded 'unworkable' by Mr Carlisle, limits contact to tigers 'with whom the keepers have bonded when they are young and under supervisory requirements.'

The supervision, he said, involved 'a responsible person who stands outside with a fire extinguisher, a sentry and someone in the office with a walkie-talkie to answer the sentry's call.'

Although the chairman of the tribunal hearing, at Ashford industrial tribunal, on January 29 this year, also thought the scheme 'unworkable' he was overruled by his two lay colleagues.

Mr Carlisle, urging Mr Justice Turner to overturn the tribunal's finding, argued the decision was wrong in law and against the weight of the evidence.

Instead, he said, the tribunal should have upheld the city council's view that contact with the tigers should be limited to animals who are 'very young, or immobilised'.

That was a position, he added, which was based on the code of practice for working with hazardous animals drawn up after consultation with the zoo industry.

Millionaire zoo owner John Aspinall said his keepers were more likely to die from crossing the road than being mauled by one of his tigers.

Mr Aspinall has said he will fight the local authority every inch of the way.

He said: 'If it goes against us we are going to appeal. We have got to be able to go in with the tigers.

The hearing continues.

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