Local authorities: regulating zoos and circuses

How local authorities must regulate, inspect and license zoos and circuses in their areas.

This guidance is for local authorities who need to licence and inspect zoos. There’s other guidance on keeping zoo animals and circus wild animal licences.

Local authorities aren’t responsible for the licensing and inspection of circuses, but you can inspect circuses if you get a complaint about animal welfare at them. You can also refer animal welfare complaints to Defra.

You should also read the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice to find out how to run a zoo without breaking the law and the minimum standards zoos are expected to meet.

What you must license

You must make sure all zoo operators (the owner or person who runs the zoo) have a zoo licence for any zoo that’s open to the public for 7 or more days in a 12-month period.

A zoo is any establishment where wild animals are exhibited to the public. It doesn’t include circuses or pet shops.

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

When you don’t need to licence zoos

Some zoos don’t need a licence because they’re very small (eg have no more than around 120 animals) or only have a few different types of animal, eg deer parks. This is known as having a dispensation.

There are also dispensations covering inspections.

You can recommend that a zoo is given a dispensation by emailing the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)

You’ll need to include a letter from a vet stating that the collection appears to be well run and the animals are cared for properly.

Dispensations are decided on a case-by-case basis by the APHA on behalf of the Secretary of State and granted by the Secretary of State.

How long licences last

New zoo licences are valid for 4 years after which they must be renewed. Renewed licences are valid for 6 years.

Before you grant a new zoo licence

You must do all of the following before you grant a new zoo licence:

  • consult the applicant about the proposed licence conditions
  • make any notice of intention (the written notice the applicant sent to you saying they want to open a zoo) available to the public, eg by publishing online or in a newspaper
  • inspect the site of the proposed zoo and assess if it’s likely to meet its proposed licence conditions - you’ll need to have one or more of the Secretary of State’s zoo inspectors at the inspection
  • consider any comments you get about the zoo

You will also need to arrange a suitable date with the applicant and the Secretary of State’s zoo inspectors for an inspection and then give the applicant 28 days notice of the proposed inspection date.

Email APHA to:

  • ask for inspectors to be allocated
  • ask for inspectors from the Secretary of State’s list

Decide a licence application

Consider the inspectors’ report and any comments made by the applicant when deciding whether or not to approve a new licence application.

You must refuse to grant a licence if you:

  • think the zoo could have a harmful effect on the health or safety of people living in the neighbourhood, or could seriously threaten the preservation of law and order
  • aren’t satisfied the zoo could meet the required conservation requirements

You can refuse to grant a licence if the accommodation, staffing or management are inadequate for the animals’ well-being or for the zoo to be run properly.

You can also refuse to grant a licence if the applicant or any zookeeper has been convicted of any relevant convictions or any other offences involving the ill-treatment of animals.

The applicant has the right to appeal to the magistrates’ court if the licence is refused.

Grant a licence

There’s a template you can use for zoo licences.

Renew a licence

You should advise the licence holder by post 9 months before their licence expires that they need to renew it.

The licence holder must apply for a renewed licence at least 6 months before their current licence expires.

You must carry out an inspection of the zoo before renewing the licence.

Consider the inspection report (and any response from the applicant) when deciding whether to renew the licence or not.

You should send a copy of the inspector’s report to the applicant within one month.

Changing or transferring a licence

Change a zoo licence

You can add, remove and alter the conditions attached to an existing licence.

Reasons for changing a licence can include:

  • an order to do so by the Secretary of State
  • the addition of a significantly different animal type to the collection, eg reptiles into a bird park
  • issues arising from an inspection report
  • a change to the Secretary of State’s standards of modern zoo practice

You may want to make a significant change to the licence. This will depend on the situation. Before you do this, you must do all of the following:

  • give the zoo operator an opportunity to respond
  • consult the zoo operator about the proposed change
  • arrange an inspection of the zoo
  • consider the inspection report

If the zoo operator appeals against the change, you can’t change the licence until the appeal has been decided or the appeal period has ended.

After the zoo licence has been changed, you must send:

  • written notification that the zoo licence has been changed to the zoo operator
  • a copy of the inspection report to the Secretary of State if they issued the change request

Transfer a licence

You can transfer a licence to a new licence holder. To transfer a licence, you must be satisfied that the proposed new licence holder is suitable (eg hasn’t been convicted for ill treatment of animals) and can meet the conservation requirements.

You don’t need to change the date of expiry on the licence.

If zoos don’t follow the conditions of their licence

You must do the following if you think zoos aren’t following the conditions of their licence:

  • send the licence holder a written notice telling them they must comply with their licence conditions
  • give them a deadline for complying with the licence conditions

State in the written notice all of the following:

  • which licence conditions the zoo hasn’t complied with
  • whether the breach is for the whole zoo or just a section of it
  • what the zoo must do to comply with the conditions
  • what the deadline is for complying with the conditions

A section of the zoo can refer to a particular part of the zoo or to a particular type of animal.

You must close down the zoo (in part or entirely) if the zoo operator doesn’t meet the conservation requirements by the deadline you gave them. You can choose whether or not to close the zoo if the zoo operator isn’t meeting other requirements of the license.

A zoo operator can appeal to the magistrates court against the closure of the zoo.


It’s your responsibility to arrange zoo inspections. You’ll need to arrange to have one or more of the Secretary of State’s zoo inspectors at the inspection.

The type of inspection you need to carry out depends on whether the licence is new or renewed, and the reason for the inspection.

When to carry out an inspection

You must carry out the following inspections:

  • a licence inspection before granting a new licence, renewing a licence or for any significant change to a licence
  • a periodical inspection during the first year of a new licence or in the third year of a renewed licence, and 6 months before the end of either a new or renewed licence
  • an informal inspection in any calendar year that there isn’t any other inspection

You can do a special inspection at any time if you or an official body are concerned about a zoo.


There’s an exception for zoos with dispensations.

Zoos can be:

  • completely exempt from the Zoo Licensing Act meaning the zoo doesn’t need any inspections (or a licence)
  • exempt from periodical and special inspections
  • exempt from being inspected by a team, eg the inspection can be carried out by one of the Secretary of State’s inspectors alone

Licence inspections

For new licences and licence renewals, you must make sure the inspection team includes an inspector from the Secretary of State.

You must do both of the following:

  • inform the zoo operator of the inspection 28 days in advance
  • send the inspector’s report to the licence applicant or holder within one month of receiving the report from the inspectors

Download the zoo licence inspection form Z003.

The inspection team will complete the form after the inspection.

Check that zoo operators have completed form ZOO1 before every formal inspection.

Periodical inspections

You must make sure that at least one of your inspectors is a vet. You can choose up to 3 inspectors on the inspection team in addition to the 2 Secretary of State inspectors.

For periodical inspections, you must:

  • contact APHA to ask for suitable inspectors to be allocated
  • tell the zookeeper the names of the inspectors before arranging the zoo inspection
  • inform the zoo operator of your inspection date at least 28 days in advance

Download and complete the zoo licence inspection form Z002.

Special inspections

It’s your decision who does the inspection, but you must appoint a vet with experience of zoo animals if the inspection relates to animal health.

You don’t need to tell the zoo operator who the inspectors are before a special inspection, but you must inform them of the inspection date, purpose and scope of the inspection. You must also send them a copy of the report.

Download and use the zoo licence inspection form Z002.

Informal inspections

You don’t need a form for the informal inspection and you don’t necessarily need to inform the zoo operator in advance. You should keep notes about an informal inspection, eg to inform the next inspection.

Informal inspections can be done by just one person.

When to close a zoo

You must permanently close a zoo in any of the following situations:

  • a condition relating to the conservation requirements hasn’t been met
  • the licence holder can’t be found
  • the zoo is no longer open 7 or more days in a 12-month period and won’t be in the future

You can close a zoo at your discretion if any of the following apply:

  • any licence condition hasn’t been met
  • the zoo operator hasn’t met the requirements made in the last inspection report
  • the zoo is being run in a disorderly manner

You can also close a zoo at your discretion if the applicant or any zookeeper has been convicted of any relevant convictions or any other offence involving the ill-treatment of animals.

Before closing a zoo

Before closing the zoo, you must tell the zoo operator and give them an opportunity to respond.

Send a written notice (known as a direction) to the zoo at least 35 days before you intend to close down the zoo - this should say that you will close the zoo.

There are templates you can use for zoo closure and for ensuring the welfare of animals following the closure of a zoo.

The zoo operator has 28 days to appeal to the magistrates’ court. You must wait until the end of this period, or until the appeal has been decided, before closing the zoo.

For licensed zoos, you must also consult the Secretary of State if you’re closing the zoo on grounds involving the care and treatment of animals.

You must then close the zoo if any of the following apply:

  • the zoo operator hasn’t applied for a licence or stated they intend to apply for one after 35 days
  • the zoo operator hasn’t applied for a licence within 3 months of stating their intention to apply for one
  • the licence application has been refused, or an appeal against an application refusal has been unsuccessful or abandoned

You can temporarily close a zoo, or a section of it, to the public, eg for repairs to an enclosure or to allow the zoo operator time to meet a licence condition.

After closing a zoo

The zoo operator must send you a plan stating their proposed arrangements for the welfare of the animals and also for any disposal of animals.

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

You must:

  • decide whether or not to approve the zoo operator’s plan
  • supervise the implementation of the approved plan

You can issue a written notice to the zoo operator about the welfare of the animals (or their disposal) in any of the following circumstances:

  • you don’t approve the zoo operator’s plan
  • you’re not satisfied with the way the plan is being implemented
  • the zoo operator is taking too long to prepare a plan
  • you think urgent steps are needed to protect the animals

You must give the zoo operator an opportunity to respond before you do this.

If the zoo operator can’t be found, or there are severe problems with their arrangements, you can make your own arrangements for the welfare of the animals (or their disposal). Again, you must give the zoo operator an opportunity to respond before you do this.

You can only dispose of animals if you’re making the arrangements for the care or disposal of animals in a zoo that has been closed.

If you own the zoo

If you’re a local authority that owns a zoo, there are different requirements for inspections and closure.


You must send the Secretary of State a copy of both of the following:

  • the licence and written notice of any extension to it
  • any inspector’s report

Zoo closure

If you’re ordered to close your zoo, you must make arrangements for the future care of the animals or their disposal, and supply this to the Secretary of State if requested.

You can appeal against an order to close the zoo.

Conservation requirements

You must make sure zoo operators meet the following conservation requirements:

  • keep animals under conditions 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
  • share conservation information
  • breed animals in captivity
  • repopulate an area with wild animals or reintroduce species into the wild

Relevant convictions

Offences under the Zoo Licensing Act

  • operating a zoo without a licence
  • failing to comply with a licence condition
  • intentionally obstructing an inspector
  • failing to meet a requirement to close the zoo or a section of it
  • failing to meet a request from a local authority to provide information
  • disposing of animals before a plan has been approved or in a way other than has been approved
  • failing to display the zoo licence

Enactments under the Zoo Licensing Act

  • the Protection of Animals Act 1911
  • the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act 1912 to 1964
  • the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925
  • the Pet Animals Act 1951
  • the Animals (Cruel Poisons) Act 1962
  • the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963
  • the Riding Establishments Act 1964 and 1970
  • the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973
  • the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976
  • the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976
  • Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Sections 4, 5, 6(1) and (2),
  • Parts 7-9 and 11 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006

Model forms

You can download model forms to:

Published 28 May 2015
Last updated 1 September 2015 + show all updates
  1. Factual amends based on post-publishing feedback.
  2. Added beta tag
  3. First published.