Keeping zoo animals

How to operate a zoo, including understanding licences and inspections.

As a zoo operator, you’re responsible for getting a licence for your zoo if you need one, and for running your zoo legally.

Read the Secretary of State’s standards of modern zoo practice to find out:

  • how your local authority decides if you can have a licence
  • how your zoo will be inspected
  • what conditions can be added to your licence

This guide is for zoo operators. Read different guidance if you’re a local authority and you want to regulate zoos.

Who needs a licence

You must have a zoo licence to run a zoo if your zoo is open to the public on 7 or more days in a 12-month period.

A zoo is any establishment where wild animals are exhibited to the public, apart from circuses and pet shops.

Wild animals are any animals that aren’t normally domesticated in Great Britain, eg camels, ostriches.

Contact your local authority if you’re not sure if your collection is a zoo.

You could get a fine of up to £2,500 if you run a zoo without a licence or don’t follow the conditions of your licence.


Some zoos don’t need a licence because of the small number of animals, or the type of animal, kept in them. This is known as having a ‘dispensation’.

You might not have to get a licence depending on your situation. The Secretary of State will make a decision on a case-by-case basis. Usually both of the following must apply to your situation:

  • very small zoos (eg zoos that have no more than around 120 animals)
  • zoos that don’t have many different kinds of animals, eg deer parks

The Secretary of State will also decide if the animals are hazardous or conservation sensitive.

Contact your local authority if you think that your zoo may qualify for an exemption.

How to get a licence

Before applying for a licence

Before you apply for a licence, you must do all of the following:

  • tell your local authority in writing that you want to open a zoo at least 2 months before you apply for a zoo licence
  • include in your written notice how you plan to meet the conservation requirements
  • publish notice of your intention to open a zoo in 1 local and 1 national newspaper
  • display the notice at the site of the proposed zoo

Apply for a licence

You can apply for a zoo licence online.

You’ll need to pay a fee for your zoo licence. Your local authority will inform you how much this is.

Your local authority will consult you about the proposed licence conditions and will inspect your zoo before granting a licence. They will consult you about the date for the inspection and will give you at least 28 days’ notice of when it will take place.

You can appeal if your application is refused.

After you get a licence

Once you get a licence, you must display it (or a copy) at the zoo entrance.

You could get a fine of up to £1,000 if you don’t display your licence.

If you’re a local authority and you own a zoo, you must send the Secretary of State a copy of your licence and written notice of any extension to it.

Renew your licence

Your original licence will be valid for 4 years. After that, you’ll need to renew your licence. Renewed licences are valid for 6 years.

You should renew your licence at least 6 months before your existing one expires. You can apply to renew your licence online.

Your local authority will carry out an inspection of your zoo before renewing your licence.

Transfer or give up a licence

You can transfer your licence to someone else if your local authority approves of the proposed new licence holder.

You can give up your licence at any time to your local authority.

Contact your local authority to transfer or give up a licence.

Changes to a licence

Your local authority may add, remove or alter the conditions of your licence after it’s been granted, for example if you add a significantly different type of animal to your collection.  

Before the change is made, they’ll tell you and give you the opportunity to respond. They’ll also carry out an inspection and consult you if it’s a significant change.

You can appeal against any change in the licence conditions.

Failure to meet licence conditions

You’ll get a written notice (known as a direction) from your local authority stating you must comply with your licence conditions if you don’t meet the conditions of your licence.

The notice will state which licence condition or conditions you haven’t met, and whether the breach is for the whole zoo or just a section of it. It will also state what steps you need to take to comply with your licence and how long you have to do this.

Your local authority can close down your zoo if you don’t meet your local authority’s requirements by the deadline they give you.

Zoo inspections

Your zoo will be inspected before and after you get a licence.

Before you can get a licence, your zoo will be inspected as part of your licence application.

If you get a licence, your zoo will be inspected at least once a year.

You might not be inspected or you might be able to have a reduced inspection if you have an exemption (‘dispensation’).

It’s a criminal offence to obstruct an inspector during an inspection.

When you won’t be inspected

You won’t be inspected if you’re completely exempt - this means the zoo doesn’t need any inspections.

You might be completely exempt from any inspections if you’re a:

  • deer park
  • small collection (eg no more than around 120 species) where the species aren’t a public safety hazard or protected

Contact your local authority if you think you might qualify for an exemption.

What happens if your zoo is inspected

You’ll get a formal inspection when you’re applying for a licence. You’ll get formal and informal inspections if you get a licence. All inspections are arranged by your local authority.

Formal inspections

A formal inspection means that your zoo will usually be inspected by a team that must by law include one or more inspectors from the Secretary of State’s list.

These inspectors might be:

  • vets
  • inspectors nominated by the Secretary of State after a request by the local authority

Your local authority will tell you who will inspect your zoo. You can appeal against the nomination of Secretary of State inspectors in some circumstances, eg if you’re a larger zoo with no exemption.

You won’t have to be inspected formally if you’ve been given an exemption from formal inspections. Contact your local authority if you think you might qualify for this kind of exemption.

You may be able to get a reduced size of inspection team formal inspections, eg being inspected by a Secretary of State inspector or inspectors rather than a full team.

Email the Animal and Plant health agency at to find out if you’re eligible for this exemption.

When you’ll get formal inspections

You’ll get formal inspections:

  • as part of applying for your licence
  • before a licence renewal or a significant change to a licence
  • during the first year of your original licence and 6 months before the end of the fourth year of that licence
  • during the third year of the licence and 6 months before the end of the sixth year of the licence if your licence is a renewal licence

Your local authority might also carry out another formal inspection at any time if it’s concerned about your zoo.

You’ll be told in writing about formal inspections in advance and who will inspect your zoo.

Informal inspections

You’ll have an informal inspection if you get a licence and there hasn’t been any other inspection during the calendar year.

You won’t necessarily be told about informal inspections, eg who’s going to inspect, what they’ll inspect or when they’ll inspect your zoo.

Before you’re formally inspected

You should download and complete the pre-inspection audit form (ZOO1) before any formal inspection.

After any inspection

You’ll be sent a report after any formal inspection and will have the opportunity to respond to any comments.

You must send the Secretary of State a copy of any inspector’s report if you’re a local authority and you own a zoo.

What to do if an animal escapes

You must do as much as possible to stop any animals escaping from your zoo (or within your zoo), and have a plan in place to deal with any escape that does happen.

Read the Secretary of State’s standards of modern zoo practice to find out more about:

  • managing escapes (pages 18-20)
  • protecting public safety in the zoo (pages 16-20)

Record keeping

You must keep up to date records of the animals in your zoo. Your records must include:

  • numbers of different animals
  • acquisitions, births, deaths, disposals and escapes of animals
  • causes of deaths
  • health of animals

Acquisitions refers to arrivals of animals, eg from sanctuaries or other zoos.

Disposal means selling the animals, loaning or giving them to another zoo, or having them euthanased.

Read more about record keeping in the Secretary of State’s standards of modern zoo practice (p21-22).

Conservation requirements

You must do all of the following:

  • keep animals in an environment suitable for their species
  • do as much as possible to stop any animals escaping
  • stop pests and vermin getting into the zoo
  • keep records of the zoo’s collection
  • help educate people about biodiversity

Zoo operators also need to do at least one of the following:

  • conservation research or training
  • sharing conservation information
  • breeding wild animals in captivity
  • repopulate an area or reintroduce species into the wild

Read more about conservation and education measures in the Secretary of State’s standards of modern zoo practice (p14).

Published 28 May 2015
Last updated 9 September 2015 + show all updates
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