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Watchdog to investigate crisis-hit zoo

SCOTLAND'S charity regulator has launched an investigation into crisis-hit Edinburgh Zoo as it emerged that two giant pandas due to arrive at the attraction are expected to be brought from China this summer.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR ) confirmed last night it is holding an inquiry into the Royal Zoological Society, the charity that runs the zoo, where one director has been sacked and two suspended.

The move came as Manus Fullerton, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) executive board member, admitted the zoo’s reputation had been damaged by a series of anonymous allegations and appealed to those “maliciously” leaking information to come forward. The leaks were said to be hindering the internal investigation under way at the zoo.

It has been revealed that the zoo held talks over leasing part of its operation to a Spanish leisure firm and the leaks appeared to be coming from someone who had an agenda, Mr Fullerton said.

He added: “The idea [for the lease plan] came from a member of staff and maybe one or some of the others didn’t like it.”

The initial suspension of acting zoo head Gary Wilson came at the end of March after the RZSS received anonymous allegations about similarities between an extension at his home and a monkey house he helped build at the animal park.

Then further allegations -- possibly from the same source but this time relating to the lease plan -- led to the sacking of one director, Anthony McReavy, and the suspension of another, Iain Valentine.

Mr Fullerton said the high standard of international research and high-profile collaborations such as the deal to bring Chinese pandas, which could arrive as early as July, would help restore the zoo’s reputation.

The zoo has confirmed it was looking at possible leasing of commercial operations but insisted it is not “for sale”.

It has had talks about leasing the zoo’s and the Highland Wildlife Park’s commercial operations to Spanish company Parques Reunidos (PR), which runs several attractions globally.

Mr Valentine was previously involved in linking the Spanish firm with Blackpool Zoo, which it now operates commercially, when he worked at that attraction.

The RZSS plans to retain full control of the charitable arm that looks after animal research and conservation. It is unclear at this stage what impact the OSCR investigation will have on whether the zoo could continue that work as a charity.

The scope of the OSCR probe is not known, but ultimately the zoo could be struck from the charity register, which would mean losing grant and tax benefits and would also be hugely embarrassing for the 102-year-old institution.

A spokesman for OSCR said: “I can confirm that OSCR currently has an open inquiry into the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. It is therefore not appropriate for us to comment further.”

The zoo said it was helping the watchdog with its inquiries.

Donald Emslie, executive chair of the RZSS, said: “After receiving the anonymous allegations the RZSS immediately advised OSCR and we have been in regular and close contact since, keeping them informed throughout our investigations.

“We welcome any further inquiries from OSCR.”

Next week employees, some of whom claim they have not been kept well enough informed about the problems, will be invited to a meeting with zoo officials.

Later the same day an extraordinary general meeting will be held for more than 200 RZSS membership-payers. Staff are not invited to the EGM so the suspended staff are not expected to be there.

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