Zookeeper sues Woburn: full report

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A FORMER zookeeper at Woburn Safari Park has claimed he was forced out of his job after highlighting health and safety and animal welfare breaches.

At an industrial tribunal in Howard Street, Bedford this week, Dr Paul O’Donoghue, 32, claimed constructive dismissal saying that a number of incidents – including events leading to the escape of an elephant – stopped him from being able to do his job.

But a solicitor, representing Bedford Estates, claimed Dr O’Donoghue left his role at the safari park voluntarily, and that the firm had adhered to all disciplinary matters and grievances at the park within given guidelines.

Solicitor Abayomi Alemoru, said: “Let me suggest to you that saying you were pushed out of your job for making complaints about health and safety and animal welfare is a post-employment construct made with your claim in March 2010.”

He suggested Dr O’Donoghue’s motive for the claim were the result of a vendetta against the park.

Dr O’Donoghue, who represented himself at the tribunal supported by his partner Emily, left his position on December 5, 2009.

He claimed that he was not able to carry out his health and safety responsibilities at the park because of a “culture in which health and safety issues seem to be tolerated within the organisation”.

When giving evidence to the tribunal he claimed that issues he raised, including a leak of human waste from the restaurant toilets which was contaminating the monkey house, breaches in security which led to an elephant escaping, and inexperienced workers tending to the park’s pride of lions, were overlooked by park chiefs.

He said: “I resigned from a permanent position at Woburn to take up a temporary position at Chester University.

“I strongly feel that I will never work in a zoo again and being a lecturer is not my long-term career ambition.”

Dr O’Donoghue described an alleged incident in which staff member Neil Berry got out of his Land Rover in the lion enclosure to free a vehicle which was stuck on a hill.

He said: “I was concerned that inexperienced staff were managing a dysfunctional and unnatural pride of lions.”

Dr O’Donoghue said that Mr Berry reacted violently when he confronted him and urged him to report it.

Mr Alemoru claimed that the reason Mr Berry behaved in this way is because Dr O’Donoghue swore at him, not because he didn’t want to file the report.

During the hearing Dr O’Donoghue claimed that he had suffered detriment and victimisation as a result of highlighting issues at the park.

He said: “During October and November there were actions and occurrences that made me question the tenability of my position.

“Comments were made about my job security, I was assaulted at work, and my employer has failed in its contact to provide a reasonable working environment with regards to health and safety.

“On November 22 an elephant escaped from Woburn. That for me was the last straw.”

The hearing was then read an extract from a letter from Woburn in response to Dr O’Donoghue’s resignation letter.

It said: “Bedford Estates take health and safety issues extremely seriously and do not accept that you have been constructively dismissed.”

Mr Alemoru also claimed that Dr O’Donoghue was actively seeking other jobs prior to the elephant incident.

He said: “You applied for a job at Chester University and were interviewed on November 10 and offered the role on November 11 subject to satisfactory references.

“Let me put it to you that by November 11 you had decided that you were going to leave Woburn as long as the Chester offer was suitable and the references were satisfactory.”

But Dr O’Donoghue, who now lives with his young family in Ellesmere Port, claimed that he found it extremely hard to leave the £35,600 per year zoo management position which was his dream job.

He said: “Zoo management jobs are extremely hard to come by as it is a niche role.

“Last year only five jobs similar to the Woburn one were advertised.”

He added: “My career has been prematurely cut short by the Bedford Estates.”

Dr O’Donoghue attempted to introduce environmental health officer Richard Johns to speak as a witness.

Mr Johns, who works for Central Bedfordshire Council, inspected the park in September 2009, and Dr O’Donoghue believed that there would be evidence in his statement to support claims that health and safety issues were being ignored by park management.

However Mr Alemoru appealed for the hearing to be struck out before Mr Johns’ evidence was heard.

He claimed Mr O’Donoghue’s motives for his claim were the result of a vendetta against the park.

He said: “It seems on the face of it that this claimant is using proceedings to pursue a vendetta against this respondent.

“This is an abuse of proceedings and the very kind of behaviour that could warrant a strike out. This is scandalous, unreasonable and vexatious conduct.”

He added: “The claimant is seeking to satisfy you that the respondent’s general management of health and safety is relevant in this case which it simply isn’t.

“This is not a public enquiry into such matters.

“His intention is to make sure that evidence comes into this case that casts the respondent in an unfavourable light.”

Mr O’Donoghue used his right to respond to the claims to issue a heartfelt appeal for the hearing’s continuation after which he broke down and had to leave the room.

He said: “I haven’t got a solicitor and in hindsight I think I should have.

“I apologise if my actions have been non-compliant but I have struggled under extreme stress to put my points forward.

“I completely deny doing it in a way which damages Woburn’s reputation but if in doing this causes Woburn to come out in a less than favourable light that is not my fault.”

David Moore, who was presiding over proceedings did not uphold the claim for a strike out and set a date for the tribunal to continue on June 20.

He said: “We are not yet persuaded that a fair trial is not possible and have decided not to strike out this claim.”

He added: “If you do not make good use of the time consequences will fall on your shoulders, particularly in a case where there are such grave issues of relevance.”