An industry-leading animal welfare policy is being unveiled by Thomas Cook Group today following an independent audit of animal attractions.

Chief executive Peter Fankhauser admitted he was “disappointed” with the findings and the workings of various suppliers.

As a result “the new policy takes a much stronger approach to ensuring the welfare of animals in the attractions we sell and is, I believe, consistent with our customer promises of quality, service and reliability,” he said.

Action is being taken by the travel giant following the audit conducted by animal welfare specialists Global Spirit over cross section of the attractions sold by Cook against Abta’s global welfare guidance for Animals in Tourism – widely accepted as the most stretching guidelines in the world.

Writing in a blog, Fankhauser said: “It became clear to me that we needed to act following an independent audit of animal attractions that I asked to be carried out earlier this year.

“Frankly, I was disappointed, not only with the lack of engagement from a number of suppliers, but also the findings of the audit.”

The new policy will require all animal attractions and outings sold by Cook to fully comply with the Abta global guidance.

“Put simply, if an attraction is found not to be fully compliant with the Abta global welfare guidance for animals in tourism, Thomas Cook won’t sell it,” Fankhauser added.

“We know that for many people, animals in captivity of any form is unacceptable. However, it is a sad truth that many captive animals cannot be safely returned to the wild.

“Tourism has a big role to play in raising standards for those animals during the transition to ending the practice of capturing animals for entertainment, and ending practices that are known to harm animals.”

But he said: “To be truly successful, this needs to become an industry issue. 

“We are committed to raising the profile of this issue and sharing the audits we do, working directly with Abta to enforce these guidelines, but also directly with our peers. Only by coming together will we improve standards at all animal attractions.”

Global Spirit will conduct a full audit of excursions offered by Cook from January 1, 2017, as part of the action plan.

Attractions will receive no notice of the audit but are expected to comply and provide access to relevant materials. Failure to do so will see the attraction immediately removed from sale.

If the audit shows an attraction is not compliant, they will have three months to show they have resolved any issues.

“We will work with the supplier to improve conditions over this period. If they don’t improve to the required standard then we will put the attraction on stop-sale and end all promotion to that attraction,” Fankhauser said.

“Even if an attraction is taken off sale, we will continue to provide assistance to suppliers to help them to meet the required standards.

“Decisions to put an excursion back on sale if it does meet compliance after the three-month deadline will be taken on a case-by-case basis.”

Will Travers, chief executive and president of the Born Free Foundation, said:  “Thomas Cook’s decision to lead the travel industry away from the exploitation of wild animals in captivity for entertainment purposes, towards a future where their welfare needs are respected and tourism becomes a driver for conservation and environmental protection, is a vision I and millions of others wholeheartedly support.

“Thomas Cook and Born Free are charting new territory where an extraordinary future beckons, one based on respect and compassion.

“Together we will defend the principle that wild animals should be free, and we commit ourselves to their protection and the conservation of the natural world.”