What the tortoise taught us about licences

tortoiseA tortoise sanctuary in Cornwall has closed this week. This might not sound like news. But the reason is astonishing. The council decided that tortoises are wild animals, and that meant, because it was open to the public for more then seven days a year, it was a zoo not a sanctuary. And all of this was decided under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.

The council started looking into this because another animal charity complained to them. Apparently, this charity campaigns against what it sees as the cruelty of keeping animals in captivity: it routinely finds sanctuaries and complains that they are really zoos. As Jeremy Vine said on the radio yesterday, that sounds like vested interests; and the council refused to reveal who complained, and therefore why they were doing this.

Although the licence for being a zoo is only £275, other bureaucratic costs, and infrastructure alterations, put the total up to £2,500 over ten years. They would have needed new fencing, regular government inspections, and a whole raft of other regulatory measures to comply with the terms of their licence. The sanctuary cannot afford this, and have closed. As they said, “The heavy financial and bureaucratic burden of the Zoo Licensing Act is way beyond the means of a small sanctuary.”

Despite the fact that s21(1) of the Act says “wild animals means animals not normally domesticated in Great Britain” the council were insistent that tortoises are wild animals. Apparently an expert told them so. Even llamas and alpacas are not wild animals.

Such a fuss have they made that there has been a veritable maelstrom of argument and letters between the sanctuary and the council. There was even a letter from the Prime Minister where he advised the sanctuary that the council had discretion to make the “wild animal” decision under the act.

The council insisted on the radio that they were just following the rules. But they were actually enforcing the rules on behalf of anther organisation who had an interest in them doing so. Taxpayers’ money has been spent on a long argument about whether a tortoise sanctuary is a zoo. And the net result is that there is no zoo and no sanctuary.

All that this has achieved is the loss of the benefit of a sanctuary, no extra revenue from a zoo, and a bureaucratic expense to administer all of this nonsense. And the owner, who never profited form the sanctuary, now has the added cost of looking after 480 tortoises that can no longer be covered by visitor donations.

Does government interference ever make anything better?