A tortoise sanctuary is facing closure after it was hit with a £250,000 bill because the council reclassified it as a zoo – and claimed the docile pets are WILD animals.
The Tortoise Garden in Sticker, Cornwall, has looked after thousands of unwanted, abandoned, injured and illegally imported tortoises since it opened 20 years go.
It cares for dozens of species and all shapes and sizes of the shelled animals, and even provides a retirement home for elderly tortoises which are up to 120 years old.
The garden was set up by husband and wife Joy and Geoff Bloor, who currently look after around 450 tortoises from 15 species in 60 pens.
But the reserve has now been reclassified from a sanctuary to a zoo by the local council, which has ordered the couple to apply for a licence under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.
Officials at Cornwall Council claim the tortoises are not ‘domestic pets’ but ‘wild animals’ – on a par with lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes.
The couple not only have to pay for a licence but adhere to strict guidelines and regular inspections which they say can cost up to £250,000 a year.
Joy says they have been told they only have a month to apply for the licence otherwise the Tortoise Garden will be shut down.
She said: ”I received a visit from a council official unannounced, telling me I would require a zoo licence.
”I asked for further clarification but the officer, who never even entered the sanctuary, stated that in her opinion the refuge was already a zoo.
”This was despite the fact that for the past two decades there have been no problems with my operation as an ongoing single species sanctuary, not a zoo.
”The costs of running a zoo and adhering to all the guideline can be in excess of £250,000 a year which for a tiny operation that runs on a shoestring like us in unachievable.
”I told the council official that tortoises were domestic pets not wild animals but she was insistent. She stated her definition of a domestic pet is a cat or dog or similar that can be house trained.
”What about rats, mice, rabbits and even horses? It’s complete nonsense. We look after all these animals but if we close where will they go?”
The sanctuary currently looks after and breeds species including South African Leopard, Mediterranean, Red Foots, Yellow Foots, African giants, South African Leopards and Russian Horsefields.
They come from three main sources – owners who are no longer able to look after them, the RSPCA, and illegal imports seized by Customs and Excise.
Its 60 tortoise pens, both inside and outside, are furnished with a variety of plants such dandelions, clovers, bindweeds and sour thistles, allowing them to graze as they would in the wild.
But Cornwall Council has now ruled the tortoises are not ”normally domesticated in Britain” and re-classified them as wild animals.
A zoo licence costs £500 a year but zoos also have to pay for expensive cages, feeding, watering and waste treatment equipment, regular inspections, and post-mortems for every animal which dies.
Joy said: ”We have spoken to one animal sanctuary which was forced to get a zoo license for two weeks and it’s already cost them £2,000.
”We’re only open six months a year because tortoises hibernate. How can we possibly raise this money?”
If she is forced to close, Joy has vowed to re-home all the animals or continue to look after them herself as domestic pets.
St Austell Town Councillor Derek Hollins says the ruling is ”bureaucracy gone mad”.
He said: ”This is a fantastic place that concentrates on educating people about tortoises.
”It also accepts animals from other institutions as donations. For as long as I have known, it has never been classed as a zoo.”
A spokesman for Cornwall Council said Joy has the right to appeal to the Secretary of State.
He said: ”The Tortoise Garden was inspected by Cornwall Council’s Public Health and Protection officers during a review of premises which could be classed as a zoo.
”Officers have sought advice from zoo experts and from council’s legal department on the status of the Tortoise Garden and have concluded that it does need a license under the terms of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981
”We have advised the owner that we will support an application for a dispensation from the Secretary of State. While the Council fully supports a dispensation there is no guarantee that this would be granted.
”If a licence application is not submitted then the council will have no choice other than to issue a closure notice with leave to appeal to a magistrates court.”