The killing of an escaped lion at the Papanack Zoo on Sunday has sparked a debate about whether the province is enforcing regulations aimed at keeping captive animals humanely housed and the public safe.

An adult male African white lion was shot dead on Sunday after it escaped its enclosure at the zoo east of Ottawa.

Papanack Zoo said in a statement that the lion ended up in the unfenced park entrance due to "human error."

Julie Woodyer of Zoocheck Canada, an animal rights charity that acts as a zoo watchdog, said she's not surprised by what happened, and says every year there are reports of animals escaping from zoos in Ontario.

Regulations 'vague'

Woodyer said the root cause of these incidents is a lack of oversight by the provincial government. 

"Children have been attacked in this province and injured severely and yet we remain in Ontario one of the only provinces in the country without captive wildlife legislation," said Woodyer.

"Take a look at the Alberta zoo standards which are specific and won't let people keep wild animals without proving they have proper facilities and training before they can get a permit. In Ontario there is no permitting system and the regulations are vague."

Ontario law does not adequately address cage construction or employee training, she said.

'Secured habitat' included in legislation, ministry says

Jonathan Rose, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said zoos are regulated under the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

"The government cares very deeply for the well-being of all animals, including those in zoos," said Rose.

Ontario has tough standards, he said, that include "enclosure requirements such as appropriate space and shelter, as well as a safe and secured habitat."

The province has given the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), a non-profit animal welfare organization, the authority to inspect zoos and enforce standards, he said.

Inspection teams are partially funded through the provincial government, he added.

Focus on animal welfare, not cage safety

But the OSPCA said their inspectors are trained to focus on an animal's welfare — not the security of their enclosures — when they conduct zoo inspections.

"The Ontario SPCA is focused on whether or not animals are safe in their enclosure, not whether the public is safe should an animal escape," said Jennifer Bluhm, an Ontario SPCA senior inspector.

An OSPCA inspector visited the Papanack Zoo earlier this year and found no problems with the welfare of the animals, the organization said. 

A Zoocheck report in 2010 — when the Papanack Zoo was under different ownership — specifically identified safety problems with enclosures and said some of the fencing looked poorly-constructed and inadequately-supported.

New owners have since taken over and residents in the area told CBC they appear to be doing a much better job running the zoo. Few people expressed concern after learning the lion had escaped its enclosure. 

The current owners of the Papanack Zoo could not be reached for their views on legislation and regulations governing zoos in Ontario.