Published: 00:01, 01 November 2018
| Updated: 16:05, 01 November 2018
Two deer died after a cheetah being hand-raised by Howletts boss Damian Aspinall escaped its enclosure and chased down a herd – but zoo bosses did not report the incident to authorities.
The big cat – a male named Saba – squeezed through a gap in his perimeter fencing to enter the neighbouring deer park, which is only separated from public walkways by an 8ft fence.
Two panicked deer ran into the wooden railings as they fled; one dying on impact and the other having to be euthanised because of its injuries.
The park was open at the time of the drama on the morning of Friday, October 12, but keepers were able to tempt Saba back into his enclosure.
Howletts bosses, however, did not report the escape to Canterbury City Council, which licenses animal parks in the district.
The authority says it was “extremely concerned” to learn of the worrying incident when told of it by KentOnline's sister paper, the Kentish Gazette.
Saba was born at Howletts’ sister park, Port Lympne, last summer but was pulled from his mother at 10 days old after becoming ill.
He has since lived in a large enclosure at Howletts, where Mr Aspinall shares a house with his wife Victoria.
The intention is to release him into the wild, with the Aspinalls dismissing claims he is domesticated, saying he is learning to hunt at the park.
The young cheetah’s life has been documented on Instagram over the past 16 months, with videos showing him cuddling up to Mr Aspinall’s daughter, Freya, and to Victoria, who describes Saba as "my baby boy".
One picture shows him as a cub, standing on a windowsill next to a bust of Mr Aspinall’s father, John, who founded Howletts, which is world renowned for its conservation work and last month shared news of another cheetah cub it saved from the clutches of illegal pet traders in Somaliland.
Five days before Saba's escape, footage showed the cheetah lounging in a hammock with Mr Aspinall, who is chairman of the Aspinall Foundation.
Three days after the escape, Victoria posted a picture of Saba, adding: “Praying this week is better than the last.”
Howletts say Saba scaled an internal fence and squeezed through a gap between the top of the mesh fencing and the electric overhang.
As a herd of deer scattered in panic, a member of staff noticed Saba had escaped and alerted keepers.
As Saba is used to human contact, keepers were able to lead him back into his enclosure, which had previously been inspected by authorities.
Park bosses say “at no time was the cheetah outside of an enclosed area, or in a public area”. They added that additional measures have been put in place and the enclosure reinforced to prevent a repeat of the escape.
“The gap has subsequently been fenced off and the electric fencing overhang has been inspected,” a spokesman said.
Under licensing laws, “any animal escape within the zoo confines and outside the zoo perimeter” must be reported to the licensing authority “as soon as possible”.
Failure to do so can ultimately result in a zoo’s licence being revoked.
Canterbury City Council says it only learned of Saba’s escape when contacted by the Gazette on Thursday.
Spokesman Rob Davies said: “We are extremely concerned to hear a cheetah escaped from its enclosure at Howletts Wild Animal Park, resulting in the death of two deer, and are investigating.
“This was not reported to us directly and we are urgently seeking assurances that adequate steps have been taken to stop this happening again.
“We will also clearly have a discussion with Howletts about their obligations to report such incidents.”
Saba’s escape follows a similar incident last March, when a cheetah broke free from its enclosure at Port Lympne. The park was put on lockdown and some visitors were forced to hide in bathrooms, while keepers ushered the big cat back into its enclosure.
On Saba’s escape, Howletts says it is “only obliged to report to Canterbury City Council if an animal escapes into public areas”.
It claims a council representative has told the park it did not need to alert the authority to the incident because “it did not constitute an escape”.
But the council told KentOnline: "The need to report incidents like this is explicit in the zoo's licence and our highly experienced zoo licensing officer has made this clear to them.
"At no time have we told them they did not need to report this to us."