Six lions at Longleat Safari Park have been put down, triggering outrage among staff who claim there was no obvious reason for the animals to be killed.
An adult male called Henry, a lioness named Louisa and four of her cubs were all put to death last month in an operation supervised by vets.
Bosses at the safari park on the Marquess of Bath’s Wiltshire estate insist the decision was taken because of ‘health risks’ after a population increase led to violent behaviour.
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But former workers in the lion reserve have questioned whether the animals should have been destroyed, and revealed that some employees were in tears when they found out what had happened.
The lions are one of the biggest attractions at Longleat, which opened in 1966 as Britain’s first wildlife safari park.
Less than three weeks ago, members of the famous Longleat pride were photographed playing happily in the park, with one leaping 30ft from an oak tree, landing on all fours with a precision which astonished onlookers.
A whistleblower told The Mail on Sunday that the lions were injected with a lethal substance from a tranquiliser gun.
Visitors were offered no explanation for the lions’ absence yesterday when the park reopened after the long winter break.
Louisa arrived in 2011 from her previous home at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm at Wraxall in Somerset.
She soon became part of a new pride and a mother to a litter of cubs – as well as a close companion of another first-time mother, Nikata.
A keeper caring for the new arrivals spoke at the time of how the pair enjoyed rough and tumble games with their cubs – who weighed just two pounds at birth – and seemed very protective of their offspring.
A Noah’s Ark Zoo spokesman said yesterday: ‘We have been told nothing. Apart from health problems, I can’t think of any other reason why a lion like Louisa would have to be put down. We will be contacting Longleat for more information.’
One of the world’s leading big cat experts, consultant vet John Knight, said he was baffled. ‘On the face of it this seems like an odd thing to do. Longleat would not take such a decision lightly because they know how much it would upset their keepers.’
Guernsey-based Mr Knight, whose career has included consultancy work with the World Wildlife Fund and the Born Free Foundation, said: ‘This could be part of a conservation programme. It is a debatable reason for putting down a lioness and her cubs but until all the details emerge it is difficult to understand their thinking.
‘Most zoos have a contraceptive programme in place and manage to control populations perfectly well.
‘That’s why this seems a bit odd, in a way. It’s just not a problem that most zoos experience. It does seem such a shame that so many young animals have been involved.’
Another big cat expert, Andrew Greenwood of the International Zoo Vet Group, said zoos did need to restrict breeding.
‘Lions take up space and zoos don’t always want them,’ he said. ‘Putting the animal down is not a welfare issue as long as it is done properly.’
According to the whistleblower, Henry was put down in early January. The former employee said: ‘I don’t think there was a reason to do it. He had been vasectomised so he couldn’t breed. Henry could have been sold to another zoo.
‘It all happened while the park was closed for the winter so no one knew what was going on. A lot of people who know what happened are very upset and angry.’
A Longleat spokesman said last night: ‘There has been a large increase in pregnancies among the lions, resulting in a 40 per cent increase in population. This has resulted in excessive violent behaviour, putting 21 of them at risk.
‘Sadly one lion, Henry, had to be put down earlier this year due to injuries from an attack within the enclosure. The further lions referred to were put down due to associated and severe health risks.
‘A further five lions from this enclosure will be moved to other premises. Longleat takes the utmost care in trying to protect the welfare and safety of all its animals.