A trip to the zoo or local animal centre is an exciting experience for most children, and it will often be the first time they will have encountered an animal apart from the domestic pet. From the exotic animals such as lions, tigers and elephants, to the traditional farmyard characters, it cannot be disputed that appreciation of their habitats and behaviours are beneficially educational to children. However, fascination and excitement can lead children to become distracted and more impulsive without due regard to the significant dangers that are present at zoos and animal centres. Furthermore, the owners and employees of the premises may not have put in place adequate protection and prevention measures to stop accidents occurring.
Undoubtedly, the animals themselves are potential dangers to children. The case of Pearson v Coleman Brothers  2 KB 359 demonstrated the danger of exotic animals. A seven year old girl was visiting the circus when she left the circus tent in an attempt to find the toilet. The child walked past the lion enclosure and was mauled by the lions. Despite the fact the child entered into an enclosure where she was not allowed, it was held by the court that a child would not recognise that this would have been out of bounds and the prohibited area had not been adequately marked off. Therefore occupiers of zoos and animals centres where exotic animals will be enclosed need to make proper provision for the protection of children.
Whilst obviously dangerous and exotic animals will be safely behind safety screens and in secure enclosures, those animals which are considered placid and tame can still pose a potential danger. Animals can be unpredictable and are incredibly sensitive to their surroundings which unfortunately means, no matter how trusted, all animals have the potential to cause harm. Animals can become distressed by children who may excitably shout, leap about and tap on the glass. This danger is especially prominent for animal centres and petting zoos where supervised animals will be presented to children to handle in order to have an up-close personal encounter. In August 2013, a two year old girl and her mother were mauled by a tapir at Dublin zoo, despite tapir’s being docile creatures and it being a supervised visit into the enclosure.
Other dangers can include equipment at the zoos and animal centres as potentially lethal machinery and chemicals may be used in the process of looking after the animals. Such equipment may unintentionally come into the path of the children, and is likely to cause harm if a child is aware of its danger.
Disease is also a major danger for children when visiting zoos and animal centres. The Capitve Animals’ Protection Society have expressed concern about children handling exotic animals and have produced a campaign in order to educate parents and teachers about the dangers of mobile petting zoo businesses. The Society claims that the handling of exotic animals such as reptiles can increase the danger of contracting Salmonella which is passed from reptiles to people and is estimated to cause around 6,000 infections each year in the UK alone. The unfortunate reality of contracting serious diseases was seen in 2009 when 76 children under the age of 10 became ill after they contracted E.coli when visiting Godstone Farm, Surrey, which allowed children to pet the animals. The worst affected children suffered from kidney failure resulting in them needing feeding tubes for liquids, regular dialysis and possibly kidney transplants in the future. In May 2014, 35 victims were awarded damages in compensation which was reported as in excess of £1m.
Zoos are regulated through the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 combined with the Zoo Licensing Act (Amendment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2002 which provides provision for quality accommodation and care for animals plus measures to prevent escapes and conservation activities.
The Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice provides guidance on best practice for zoos including special provisions to ensure the safety of children when visiting. One requirement is that gates and doors to animal enclosures where the public are permitted must be designed, constructed and maintained so to not trap or injure children. Safety barriers should also be designed to prevent children getting through, under or over them and should discourage visitors from sitting on them to prevent a fall. Electric fencing used to contain animals must be checked and backed up in case of a power cut.
Signposting throughout the zoos are also acknowledged as important to ensure safety. The Practice guidance states that edges where a person might fall should have warning signs and be guarded to prevent children from falling. The Practice guidance also suggests zoos should use symbol-based signs to assist children with recognising and understanding dangers.
Furthermore, supervisors of the zoos should ensure that following contact with animals, children should wash their hands to prevent contraction and spread of diseases and signs should be prominent to remind parents and accompanying adults of this.
The law views owners of zoos and animal centres as ‘occupiers’ which have a duty to maintain the premises safely for the benefit of third parties on their premises and therefore an accident occurring on the premises may impose a tortious liability on the occupiers. Visitors are defined by the law as people who enter the premises by right, by express or implied terms of contract, whose presence is lawful and those whose presence becomes unlawful after the person’s entry but they are taking reasonable steps to leave the premises. However a visitor will not be someone who trespasses onto the property. The common law therefore imposes a duty on the occupiers to take reasonable care to ensure that the visitors to the zoos and animal centres are reasonably safe and so must take appropriate preventative measures to avoid any injuries, especially to children. If an occupier is negligent in failing to prevent any injury, then they could potemtially be sued for damages.
It is important that you consider making a compensation claim for your child’s personal injury at the time of the accident. A claim can be brought in negligence against the zoo or animal centre where they have failed to properly protect a child from being involved in an accident. The owners owe a duty of care to anyone who enters the property and visits the zoo or animal centre. Furthermore, if a particular employer has been involved in the accident and it is clear that but for the employee’s actions, the accident wouldn’t have occurred, the zoo itself can be held vicariously liable for the tortious act of their employees.
The general rule under the Limitation Act 1980 limits requires claim for personal injury for compensation to be made within three years from the date of the accident, or from the date a claimant that their injury was linked to the l accident, (whichever is latest) otherwise a claim can be time-barred.
However special rules apply for children where the limit for bringing a claim is three years, but this three year period does not start until the child reaches the age of 18. Alternatively, if the circumstances require a claim to be brought immediately, then the court will allow a ‘litigation friend’ to bring a claim on the child’s behalf. Normally this person will be one of the child’s parents or guardians. This person must be able to demonstrate to the court that they can act fairly and competently on behalf of the child and that they have no conflict of interest in acting for the child. The litigation friend must also undertake to the court that they will pay any costs that the child is ordered to pay in connection with court proceedings, however this can be reimbursed through the child’s assets.
Hazards and risks will be measured and controlled by zoos and animal centres, however controls can fail and accidents can happen. The law provides enhanced protection for children against these dangers.