The Memo: Lion on the loose in Berlin

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Lion on the loose in Berlin: What does the law say when it comes to owning wild animals?

James Westmacott – 31 July 2023

Residents of Berlin’s south-western suburbs were urged to stay indoors last week after overnight sightings of a potentially dangerous animal, with authorities around the German capital suspecting it to have been a lioness. The dramatic search was aborted merely days later though, as the mayor of Kleinmachnow – the municipality just outside the city in which the animal was spotted – stated that he believed that the animal causing such alarm was instead a wild boar. While the mystery remains unsolved, there were rumours aplenty that the animal was an escaped exotic pet – harking back to the days of the ‘Beast of Bodmin’ here in the UK. So, what are the legal implications of owning wild animals, and how does this impact us here in the UK?

Essentially, anyone owning an animal considered to be “wild, dangerous, or exotic” must obtain a license, issued by the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs or Natural Resources Wales, as per the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. According to the RSPCA, a license is required predominantly to help ensure specie conservation rather than animal welfare, though many licenses issued are strongly linked to further legislation and international conventions.

The history of animal licensing protection in the UK has been a complex one, but a number of legal acts have passed through parliament over the years. The aforementioned Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 was considered to be a major breakthrough, declaring that animals must be licensed by a local authority to ensure the animal is held securely in order to prevent the kind of situation seen in Berlin (in addition to informing its owner of potential inspections when it comes to animal welfare). In 1981, the Zoo Licensing Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act was passed, with the former spelling out the need to obtain a license if displaying a wild animal to the public, whilst the latter ensured that particular animals must be registered if kept in captivity and marked with a leg ring or microchip.

Whilst welfare checks are often part of part of the licence issuing process, many animal rights groups in the UK such as Animal Aid and the National Animal Welfare Trust argue that the legislation does not stretch far enough in terms of protecting wild animals from ‘unnecessary suffering’, as the groups also provide evidence for consultations when the government is considering legal changes.