Big cats at Northland sanctuary face death if it doesn't reopen

Source: 1News

Janette Vallance and Murray Bolton say they have been battling to reopen the Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary  for eight years.

Some of the big cats — lions, tigers, a cheetah and a black leopard — which call it home used to grace Aotearoa’s television screens in the infamous series, The Lion Man, which aired in the 2000s.

But off-camera at the then-named Zion Wildlife Gardens, 'Lion Man' Craig Busch, an unorthodox and controversial figure in the animal kingdom, faced claims from staff he killed unwanted cubs.

Big cats were later found in unsanitary living conditions and had also been declawed or partially declawed.

One of the white tigers at Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary.

There was also a tragedy when much-loved handler Dalu Mncube was fatally mauled while cleaning an enclosure.

Busch was also convicted of two charges of assaulting his former partner.

Now in new hands, if the Northland park cannot reopen, Bolton told Sunday the big cats will have to be euthanised.

Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary's Janette Vallance.

With many of them old and declawed, he reckons no zoos want them.

The park needs certification from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to reopen.

The businessman bought the troubled venture in 2014 and has poured millions of dollars into renovating the park.

Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary.

"I’ve been extremely patient with these people," Bolton said of MPI. "I’m at the end of my rope."

He claims the park, which was regulated by MPI when he bought it, had turned a blind eye to Busch’s behaviour.

Bolton also claims MPI keep moving the goal posts, the latest of which involves a financial statement.

Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary owner Murray Bolton.

"I don’t need to prove anything about my financial ability to keep the park going," he said.

"It’s their mess, they need to clean it up."

To Vallance, the big cats are her adopted children.

"You get attached to the cat. Its name, its personality, its individual behaviours ... They are our family," she said.

"We’re fighting for these cats because where would they go otherwise? They won't, they won't go anywhere."

Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary's black leopard Mandla.

When Vallance and her husband, Dale, came on board in 2016 to manage the park, she said there wasn’t one enclosure which either didn’t need fixing or knocking down.

"Talk about containment or animal welfare or whichever way you want to look at it, it didn't meet it."

MPI’s Vince Arbuckle said MPI wanted to see the park open too, but safely.

"If Murray can just see his way through that, well I’m sure we’ll get this resolved," he said.

"His actions to date as an investor in the park suggested that actually he’s in there for the long haul."

MPI's Vince Arbuckle.

In order to get the park open, Arbuckle said issues around staffing needed to be addressed.

"There’s an assurance from WorkSafe that they’re satisfied from a public safety perspective," he said.

"They need to have the right people and the right systems to open safely. We now need to look into whether Janette alone and with her staff are sufficient and competent and suitable to undertake that role, it’s an important role," Arbuckle said. 

"The park has had a tragic history. Absolutely tragic history. A member of the public was severely injured and a keeper was mauled to death.

"No one wants to go back to what it was. It wasn’t good for the animals, it wasn’t good for the staff, it wasn’t safe for the public."