Sometimes Barristerblogger rushes to post a blog, often over the weekend, and often about a subject which he only half understands. Sometimes it hits the right target, sometimes it misses spectacularly. That’s the risk with a blog. Generally speaking I will leave the post up unaltered, leaving it to the commenters to eviscerate it if necessary. Just occasionally I am left with serious regrets that a well-intentioned post may have serious consequences for innocent people, and that is the case with my last post, which I could not resist titling The legalised lynching of Lillith the lynx.
When it was first posted I was quite happy with it, the only immediate regret being that I couldn’t somehow work a Welsh word beginning with “ll” into the title.
Based on newspaper reports – it is very rare that this blog has a scoop of its own – it seemed that a harmless lynx had been mown down by a bunch of blood-thirsty, trigger happy riflemen urged on by unimaginative Aberystwyth bureaucrats with nothing better to do than plan a gratuitous felicide. Since I rather like the idea of the Welsh mountains (and English & Scottish forests too) being once again occupied by lynxes, and have an instinctive dislike of gun-toting macho-men, this seemed an apt topic for a blog. Admittedly the legal angle was not very interesting, but there was just about enough law involved to justify a post on a broadly legal blog.
So the piece was dashed off, mocking the “Cambrian Rambos” who shot the lynx, and, I rather hoped, dripping with sarcasm over their leader, Andrew Venables who, it was reported in the Guardian – generally as reliable a newspaper as any other – saying that “the possibility of a darting operation was never explored.” Either these people were desperate to shoot a big cat rather than recapture it, or they were simply too cowardly or too clumsy to creep up close enough to shoot it with a tranquillising dart.
As for Lillith’s owners, Mr and Mrs Tweedy, they seemed to be the wronged party. They had taken over a failing zoo and were doing their best to raise its standards. Unfortunately Lillith had escaped – anyone with a cat will know how tricksy these animals can be – and they would have been able to recapture it if only the council had given them enough time.
Shortly after pressing the “Publish” button one or two doubts began to creep into this narrative. First, it turned out that the zoo had somehow managed to accidentally strangle a second lynx, Nilly. According to its Facebook post, reported in Wales Online:
“Over the past few weeks our staff have been under incredible pressure and when the authorities gave us 24-hour notice that they would be carrying out a full cat inspection we took the decision to move Nilly to a more suitable enclosure.
Unfortunately, there seems to have been a terrible handling error where it seems she twisted in the catch-pole and became asphyxiated.”
One dead lynx might be put down to bad luck, but surely a well-run zoo should not lose two lynxes in the space of a week? At the very least it raises a question mark over the competence of the staff employed by the Tweedies.
Secondly, I received a very polite, entirely unthreatening but very compelling email from Mrs Venables, the wife of the “Cambrian Rambo” who had himself shot the lynx. It turns out that most of my assumptions about Mr Venables were wrong.
First of all, and most importantly, he says that he did not use the words attributed to him by the Guardian. Contrary to the impression given by the words “the possibility of a darting operation was never explored,” this possibility was explored in great detail.
Mr Venables himself is not licensed to use dart guns, which, because they use compressed gas, are restricted under S.5 (1) (af) of the Firearms Act 1968. Indeed, mere possession of such a gun without lawful authority attracts a mandatory 5 year minimum sentence. A licensed darter was consulted, as was a senior zoo vet. It turns out that darting a lynx is far from straightforward, and getting within the 10 – 15M distance necessary for the dart to do its job is only the first (albeit considerable) problem. A lynx hit with a dart does not immediately keel over. The tranquillising drugs take about 15 minutes to work. In that time the animal, startled by the pain of the dart, is likely to run. I can quite see that a frightened lynx might cover a considerable distance in 15 minutes, and that it could be very easy for it to vanish into the Aberystwyth nacht und nebel. There is a further twist: if the animal is not found immediately, there is a high risk that it will die from over-heating due to the drugs involved. Perhaps that was a risk worth taking, perhaps it wasn’t. What was certainly not true was the impression given by my blog that Mr Venables hadn’t thought about tranquillising the lynx. He had done so very carefully.
And I was completely wrong to mock Mr Venables’s professionalism. He is not – as I confess I had imagined him – some red-necked hill-billy renting out a shooting range for social misfits who want to pretend to be soldiers for a few hours. “It cannot be often,” I wrote, “that these Cambrian Rambos are called upon to do anything important.” On the contrary, he is a highly responsible professional, and Mrs Venables email set out a list of the things he does, which I might as well simply repeat here:
1. Trains many of the UK’s zoos and wildlife parks which own Section 1 Mammals (dangerous ones) in the safe use of firearms in order that the zoos can to manage any escape under the requirements of the Zoo Licensing Act. So next time a dangerous animal gets out and is shot by a zookeeper before it can kill 5-year-old Danny from Deptford that will be thanks to Andrew and other trainers like him.
2. Annually trains a UK Government department in safe and humane firearms use for the management of invasive species here in the UK, such as the ruddy duck, and on UK overseas territories such as Montserrat. The rating given to Andrew by this department for the work he did for them was 9.95 out of 10.
3. Provided maritime firearms security training to professional guards operating on British ships passing through the High Risk Area, as instigated by the British Government under David Cameron.
4. Provides firearms training to UK Police Forces (some 25 constabularies over the past years) in the safe and humane despatch of large mammals such as cows, horses, deer etc that may cause a risk to the public for example by straying onto a motorway.
5. Provides training for deer stalking and deer management in the UK and for hunting to ensure his clients can make safe, humane shots.
6. Speaks at conferences and events on the importance of training in the use of firearms as requested by the likes of the British Deer Society, the Deer Initiative, the British Association for Shooting & Conservation and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA).
7. Advises as an expert witness in firearms related criminal investigations.
8. Provides a range rifle shooting experience days for numerous members
of the public. Not important at all really other than ensuring we earn some money to pay our bills.
Mrs Venables went on to tell me, again very politely and calmly that since her husband’s name had been made public their contact details have been circulated on the internet, they have been made aware of threats to kill and maim them, and they have had to install police alarms in their house.
I daresay the Tweedies have also had to put up with the same sort of thing and if so that too is utterly disgraceful: whether or not they are the right people to run a zoo is for others to establish; but there is no reason to think that they are not decent, caring and animal loving people. Their dream of revitalising a somewhat run-down zoo and animal sanctuary has turned into a nightmare.
I can quite understand how an ill-informed, inaccurate and – from my comfortable perspective – relatively light hearted blog about a sad story can appear as extremely tasteless (to put it mildly) when you are the potential targets of animal rights fanatics, and for that reason I am pleased to correct the record.