IN the final installment of a three-part series of interviews with South Lakes Safari Zoo's founder David Gill the controversial character speaks to AMY FENTON about the end of his reign.

"IN 24 years so much has happened," says David Gill, as he reflects on his almost quarter of a century at the helm of South Lakes Safari Zoo.

"Although I had planned to retire for a few years before I left I never expected it would be like this."

Having faced relentless criticism and calls for him to step down following a series of scandals, the under-fire zoo boss handed over the reigns in January 2017, giving control of the park to a new company headed up by Karen Brewer.

Changes were made immediately, animal numbers were cut and tough-talking animal director Andreas Kaufmann was brought in to comply with conditions imposed by licensing officers.

But when BBC documentary Trouble at the Zoo aired this February, having been filmed following Cumbria Zoo Company's takeover, it showed some of the challenges still being faced.

Mrs Brewer told The Mail the zoo had asked the BBC to do a documentary to illustrate how things had changed since Mr Gill stepped down from his role. She later said "the whole idea was to be open and transparent, to show who we are now, and that we don't want to hide behind anything."

Surprisingly the documentary failed to attract the one viewer who most would assume would have been keen to view it.

"I've never watched it," says Mr Gill.

"My doctor's advised me to avoid stress so I simply haven't watched it."

Despite his disagreements with the way the zoo is being run today Mr Gill insists he wants the new company to be successful.

"The zoo is my baby," he says.

"I don't want to harm this business, I want the people who took it over to be successful. I have a huge amount of debt myself and I need them to be successful frankly."

On September 20, 2016, Mr Gill and his family moved out of the zoo house he built himself, to a farm near Wasdale where he now keeps Highland Cattle, the Windsor Flock of Jacob Sheep and Herdwicks.

"We decided to buy another house, leave the zoo and move out, we'd had enough," he says.

"I have another life now which I really enjoy. There are two parties interested in buying the zoo and I am now going to put it on the open market."

On March 22 of this year Mr Gill says he returned to the zoo for the first time in 15 months.

Two weeks later, on Friday April 13, he said he was arrested on suspicion of blackmail after an alleged incident regarding the electricity supply at the zoo house which is linked to the main zoo's supply.

Describing how he was arrested by officers who arrived at his home at 6am on a Saturday morning - "they put me in the back of a van and took me to Workington where I was kept in a cell for four hours before I was interviewed."

Mr Gill strenuously denies any wrongdoing. He has been bailed until May 2.

David Gill on proposed changes to zoo legislation

SINCE South Lakes Safari Zoo was hit by a series of scandals, including the death of a zookeeper and a report detailing the deaths of hundreds of animals, there have been calls for a national regulator to be created to monitor and inspect zoos across the UK.

Under current legislation the licensing of zoos falls to individual local authorities such as Barrow Borough Council which is responsible for inspecting and licensing zoos such as that at Dalton.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his traditional defiant streak and as someone who is known to battle against the establishment, David Gill agrees.

"No disrespect to Barrow Borough Council but I absolutely agree there needs to be a national regulator so that the rules and regulations are interpreted and enforced consistently across the nation," he says.

"The zoos and their staff, along with the councils and inspectors, need protection and it is only right that the law is the same across the board."

Mr Gill reveals that after Barrow Borough Council imposed strict conditions on South Lakes Safari Zoo his staff were "terrified to do their jobs".

"It became absolutely ridiculous," he says.

"The staff were all terrified to do their jobs. They were all too scared to do the most basic of tasks in case they were spotted by the inspectors and hauled before them and accused of doing something wrong.

"They started to doubt themselves and their abilities and that was really unfair."

Under current zoo licensing legislation zoos are subject to an annual inspection and must comply with the Secretary of State's Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

At the end of last year environment secretary Michael Gove tasked the Zoo Expert Committee with considering whether any changes need to be made to the zoo licensing system in light of what happened at South Lakes Safari Zoo.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will consider the committee's report once it is complete.

TIMELINE: Key events in the history of Dalton zoo

1983: David Gill reveals his vision to open a wild animal park at his home.

1993: David Gill buys 14 acres of land off Broughton Road in Dalton.

1994: South Lakes Wild Animal Park opens to the public on May 27.

1996: The zoo attracts a record number of 100,000 visitors.

1996: The zoo features on Michaela Strachan's The Really Wild Show.

1997: Zimba the white rhino escapes from its compound and is shot and killed.

2000: David Gill buys land in Australia to open Mareeba Zoo.

2004: After just four years Mareeba Zoo in Australia is closed after regulatory breaches including one in which he was fined for chasing down a cheetah on a motorbike.

2007: Dalton zoo's reports record post-tax profits of £350,000.

2007: David Gill is attacked by love rival Richard Creary after the zoo boss started seeing Creary's estranged wife.

2008: The zoo is criticised by licensing officers over the escape of lemurs.

2013: The zoo is hit by tragedy with the death of zookeeper Sarah McClay.

2016: In June the zoo is fined after admitting safety failings relating to Miss McClay's death.

2016: Cumbria Zoo Company Limited is established to take over running of the zoo.

2017: Government announces it is considering an overhaul of zoo legislation and licensing.