YOU may not know it as you wander around Edinburgh Zoo, or drive through Blair Drummond Safari Park, but these sanctuaries for animals and animals lovers have arsenals of guns and staff trained in firearms ready to shoot dead any animal which poses a threat to human life.

The world may have been shocked by the killing of Harambe the silverback gorilla who was shot after he was seen to behave dangerously with a three-year-old boy who had managed to get into his enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo ... but the events would have played out exactly the same here in Scotland. In fact, they have already played out exactly the same - with dangerous or escaped animals shot dead by Scottish zoo staff to protect the public.

Here, in Scotland, zoos are obliged to have protocols for situations where the public might be in danger. They must comply with the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, which states that any zoo that holds a "Category 1" - or dangerous - animal should have “appropriate firearms available”. Among their staff they must have “licensed and trained operators” of firearms.

From time to time, therefore, zoos do have to shoot animals, either for public safety, or because an animal has escaped and injured itself. In 2008, for instance, when a Barbary macaque with rabies escaped its quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo, the monkey was shot. Iain Valentine, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's head of animals, said it was a "regrettable situation" but public safety was the "primary concern".

Nor is the shooting of escaped animals anything new. At Glasgow’s Calderpark Zoo, in 1949, a female tiger called Sheila escaped her cage, and was, shot by Zoo Director Sydney Benson when she approached a group of Brownies.

British zoos are not the only zoos in Europe to have such protocols. EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, a body to which many British zoos belong, requires its members to “have full plans for dealing with life-threatening situations involving animals in their care”. These include, according to a spokesperson, “the requirement for the zoo to have staff onsite during opening hours (and on call during other times) who are authorized to decide on a course of action that may include the deployment of firearms.”

The issue of safety in zoos revolves mainly around two scenarios. The first is animals getting out of the enclosures. The second is the humans finding their way in. In recent years a significant number of animals have escaped from the enclosures of Scottish zoos, though mostly briefly. At Edinburgh Zoo, for instance, four years ago, a Heck Bull, a 600 kg animal with horns several foot long, broke through its enclosure fence after a dominance fight with another animal. It remained within the “stand-off” barriers, which keep visitors at a safe distance from the enclosure, but was on the loose for 40 minutes, until it was darted by staff. The bull was put down because of injuries sustained.

Also at Edinburgh Zoo a group of four red river hogs ran off when being moved out of their enclosure. The public were guided to take refuge in an empty monkey house. Witnesses reported staff running round with brushes trying to catch them, and the hogs were recaptured within an hour, unharmed, having been shot with tranquilliser darts.

Many other Scottish zoos and wildlife parks have experienced such runaways. Last November, a wolf escaped Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park. The keepers, however, only became aware of its disappearance when a woman who lives nearby spotted it. And this was not the first escapee in Galloway. In 2008, two red pandas went missing after a tree toppled onto their enclosure, allowing them to walk free, and, fourteen years ago, a lynx escaped the park.

The Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie has also experienced a wolf escape. In 2010, after it was spotted outside its enclosure, visitors to the park were ushered into the site café, while the wolf was shot with a tranquilliser dart.

Too often escaped animals end up injured or put down. Take Bugsy, a llama who in 2013 jumped the five foot high fence of its enclosure at Black Isle Wildlife Park, near Inverness, and was found injured in some woods on Forestry Commission Land, where it was put down by shooting it dead. The owner of the wildlife park said that it was considered “the best way to cause as little stress as possible to the animal."

The reality of zoos: mauled by bears, bitten by sharks, eaten by tigers

Since Harambe’s death, globally, many questions have been asked. Was there a problem in the enclosure design? How did the child manage to get through what should have been impenetrable safety barriers? Could such a situation arise in other zoos?

Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation, an animal rights organisation whose focus is the conservation of animals in their wild habitat, says zoos around the world are now reviewing their safety procedures. “They’ll be looking at their enclosures," he says, "and their barriers to try to determine whether there are points of weakness. And there will be parents who are thinking twice whether they want to take their child into a situation which quite evidently does carry risks that they weren’t fully aware of before this tragedy.”

Travers believes that Harambe’s death raises a broader question about zoos: “What are we doing putting people, and potentially dangerous wild animals in close proximity to each other? It’s a totally unrealistic proximity. That’s really what a zoo experience is based on. It’s about giving you the opportunity to get up close and personal with animals that you have no right to be up close and personal with.”

Zoos, he points out are “not no risk environments, either for the public or the animals, and we should regard them in that way”.

Most people who work in zoos are aware of the risks and very careful to stick to the rules and procedures. Lesley Coupar, spokesperson for Five Sisters Zoo in West Calder, describes their approach to "category 1" animals, for instance their lions, originally rescued from a circus. “We make sure there’s not actually any human interaction with such animals,” she says. “There are strict procedures followed. If a cleaner is going in to clean their area, then these animals are never in the same area. There are a number of doors and locks and procedures and its’ working with strict protocols. That’s for everybody’s safety: the keepers, the visitors and the animals. Basically every day you have to appreciate that you are dealing with wild animals. You need to never forget that.”

Thankfully, there have been few major human injuries in recent years in Scottish zoos. Go back thirty years though and there was ten-year-old boy who sneaked into the bear enclosure at Camperdown Park in Dundee and had his arm torn off by a brown bear. Recent times have brought few and mostly minor injuries: stories like that of the staff diver who was bitten by an angel shark at Deep Sea World in 2009. But you only have to look just over the border, to Cumbria and South Lakes Wild Animal Park, to find a much more tragic story: the horrific death of Glasgow-born zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed in 2013 when a tiger managed to get through the door into the keeper's corridor and maul her.

But it’s also not hard to find evidence of close shaves – the stories that don’t make the news, because they didn’t quite happen. In 2014 Edinburgh Zoo reported an incident in the Jaguar enclosure. Its door had been closed but not locked. No escape occurred. But such occurrences are a reminder that these are environments that are not without risk.

The other big zoo question: what about animal welfare?

Beyond issues of public safety, there is also, of course, the issue of animal safety and welfare. For John F Robins of animal rights charity Animal Concern Advice Line, however, it’s not really the large well-known zoos that are the problem. Rather, he points out, it’s the smaller zoos, often created as farm diversification projects, and frequently run by people significantly less knowledgeable about the care of animals, that worry him. “Over the last few years we have had complaints about several mini-zoos up and down the country. Some of them have been closed down.”

Among the small zoos he criticises is Fife Zoo under its previous ownership, (it has recently been taken over by new owners). The zoo was closed in 2014, and owner Peter Lockhart was banned from keeping animals after admitting to a string of welfare charges. Robins has also received numerous allegations, he notes, regarding Black Isle Wildlife Park near Inverness. The park is currently being investigated by the Highland Council and police.

One of the problems, Robins believes, is that the zoo licensing system is inadequate. “Animal Concern Advice Line would like to see a total overhaul of the Zoo Licensing system with proper competency tests to ensure those running them know how to care for the animals and how to keep the public safe. They should also have to prove they have the finances to run the place properly as few, if any, of these places make a profit. We also need no-breeding clauses to stop zoos producing cute and cuddly cubs and kittens for Easter which they are desperate to get rid of later.”

There are currently no plans for such an overhaul. A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Currently all zoos in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, are strictly regulated under the (UK) Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Local Authorities are responsible for issuing licences under the Act and, in Scotland, all licensed zoos are inspected by zoo inspectors who are appointed by Scottish Ministers on the basis of their expertise.”

Robins points out there are problems with this system. The councils, who issue the licenses, are sometimes loathe, he notes, to intervene if it seems like a zoo is failing to comply to standards, since they can then find themselves responsible for the upkeep and rehoming of the animals, which can be a hugely costly.

Robins, while generally critical of zoos, however, observes they do still serve some purpose. “Probably the best things good zoos can do is provide sanctuary for exotic animals rescued from bad zoos, the pet trade, research labs, circuses etc.”

What will the legacy of Harambe be? How will this shocking event impact the way zoos are run and perceived? Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation believes it could represent a turning point in public attitudes. He points out that in the UK our attitudes towards the use of wild animals in circuses have changed so dramatically in recent decades that it looks likely that in Scotland we will soon have legislation banning it. “Is the killing of Harambe also going to be a tipping point in terms of public consciousness?” he asks. “I think there is a significant chance that incidences like this will accelerate public thinking about the interface between wildlife and our increasingly crowded, urbanised human society.”