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The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 came into force in 1984. The act requires the inspection and licensing of all zoos in Great Britain.

The act aims to ensure that, where animals are kept in caged surroundings, they are provided with a suitable environment to provide an opportunity to express most normal behaviour. Zoos must comply with both the provisions of the act, and with the requirements set out in the Secretary of State's standards of modern zoo practice.

Responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the licensing system rests with the council as licensing authority. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility for maintaining a list of zoo inspectors and setting detailed standards for zoo management with which zoos are expected to comply.

The Secretary of State has a two-part list of inspectors that he can call on to inspect the zoos. The first part contains names of veterinary surgeons and veterinary practitioners who have experience of zoo animals. The second part lists persons who are competent (in the Secretary of the State's opinion) to inspect animals in zoos, to advise on their welfare and to advise on general zoo management issues. Inspectors' expenses are paid by the licensing authority, and recharged to the owner of the zoo.

A zoo is defined in the act as being 'an establishment where wild animals are kept for exhibition... to which members of the public have access, with or without charge for admission, on more than seven days in any period of twelve consecutive months'.

The wide scope of this definition means that licensed zoos range from traditional urban zoos and safari parks to small specialist collections such as butterfly houses and aquaria. The act recognises this wide range of establishments by allowing dispensations to be granted for small zoos.

Dispensations for these types of collection are purely to reduce the number of inspectors to a reasonable level for a small establishment, and do not in any way weaken a zoo's obligation to achieve the levels of animal welfare and modern public safety set out in the Secretary of State's standards. The act does not extend to circuses, or to pet shops, both of which are covered by other (Home Office) legislation.

Application process

If you are considering opening a zoo, please read the Zoo Licensing Act guidance and contact the Environmental Health team on 01744 676789 or email to discuss the application process.