Village bobbies have been armed with high powered rifles – so they’re equipped to shoot dead escaped zoo animals, it was revealed today (mon).
Fears have been raised over the danger to the public if thick-skinned creatures such as rhinoceroses break free from their enclosures.
To tackle the threat, cops in Norfolk and Suffolk have been trained to use the rifles with 0.375 calibre ammunition – around a centimetre thick.
The two counties are home to more than 2,000 of the world’s most exotic animals, including rhinos, tigers, buffalo and camels.
They are housed at Banham Zoo in Norfolk and Africa Alive in Kessingland, near Lowestoft, Suffolk.
It is written policy at both zoos that dangerous escaped animals are shot and killed as quickly as possible, despite global outrage over animal deaths of this kind.
The Norfolk and Suffolk forces have revealed they have “measures in place in the event of large animals escaping” to protect the public.
In a joint response to a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, they said: “Suffolk and Norfolk constabularies own a high-powered rifle and suitable ammunition for dispatching large, thick-skinned animals.
“There are contingency plans in place between zoos and police for dealing with an escaped animal.”
Staff at both zoos carry out a minimum of four animal escape practices each year, with at least two for dangerous animals.
Insp Nick Russell said the rifle was a relatively new purchase made around three/four years ago and that all rifle officers have specific training for shooting animals.
He added: We didn’t have anything sufficient to deal with rhinos.
“We purchased a high calibre rifle, basically a hunting rifle, to humanely kill an animal of that nature.”
There is also a firearms team at both zoos who are professionally trained to take out dangerous animals if they escape from the zoos or the public were at harm on site.
Animal experts say tranquillisers which sedate an animal, although a less lethal alternative, can be ineffective as the animal would have to be darted in the correct place which can be difficult from a distance.
Gary Batters, director of conservation and education at the Zoological Society of East Anglia, explained: “We do not consider the use of tranquillisers appropriate for a number of reasons.
“Getting the drug dose correct for an effective tranquillisation is exceedingly difficult, animals that are excited with large amounts of adrenaline in their systems respond very differently to calm animals.
“Even animals darted with very high drug doses often fail to respond.”
Mr Batters said another reason why they were cautious about darting was the potential danger of animals moving away and hurting or even killing someone.
There is also a fear an animal can move into thick cover and be difficult to locate, hiding whilst inactive as the drug takes effect and then becoming active again at a later time.
Mr Batters added: “We also feel that staff need clear guidance and if we had two options there is the possibility that staff would hesitate and miss the one opportunity when they could have resolved an escape situation.
“That said, there are senior animal management staff who can overrule the shoot to kill policy if they feel it is safe to do so.
“Although large and technically dangerous white rhino are generally very calm and even tempered, much like a domestic cow. If there was no public risk we may opt to herd an animal back into confinement.”
Insp Russell added: “The problem with tranquillisers is that these animals, some potentially wild, become very unpredictable when they are tranquillised.”
But Chris Rockingham of Pact Animal Sanctuary, an animal rescue centre in Hingham, Norfolk, said shooting dangerous animals that have escaped should be a last resort.
Ms Rockingham said animals should not be kept in zoos, which she described as “prisons”, other than for conservation reasons, but added: “It is our responsibility to make sure enclosures are escape-proof.
“If an accident does happen and an animals escapes, other opportunities should be tried before killing.
“They should try tranquillisers and have somebody on hand who can shoot to kill if that doesn’t work and if a member of the public was in danger.”