Tauranga accountant Ian Stevenson is in the thick of the highly publicised ownership changes being undertaken at Zion Wildlife Gardens near Whangarei.
The lion park, which has over recent years been the scene of an ongoing bitter and public battle between Lion Man Craig Busch and his mother Patricia Busch has been sold by the receiver, Price Waterhouse Coopers, to Zion Wildlife Kingdom Ltd.
Tauranga accountant Ian Stevenson is part-owner of Zion Wildlife Kingdom.
The directors are Beth McVerry of Cambridge and Ian Stevenson, who intend to reopen the park to the public.
“It is going to operate as a park,” says Ian.
“We do have some plans for improvements, possible expansion with time – but the first thing is to get it up and running.
“There's no public access at the moment.
“We are working to get the place cleaned up and get the animals organised.
“There are a few issues there, with the well-being of the cats being the first priority, particularly relating to health issues that we are sorting out.”
There are 36 big cats; tigers, Bengal tigers, white lions, lions, cheetahs and a black leopard.
“The black leopard is wicked; I tell you, the eyes pierce through you,” says Ian.
The manner of the takeover of the wildlife park by the new owners made national news, but from an accountancy perspective, Ian says the takeover method used was standard in a receivership.
“Usually you go in, in force with security personnel and others.
“You secure the perimeter, you get to where the people are and you make sure it's secured and locked down.
“Then you deal with an agenda of objectives to achieve and you start working through it; on-site personnel, anything that might be hazardous to the cats – you make sure they are all okay.”
The cats' day-to-day physical requirements aren't huge, says Ian, but they are intelligent and they require their psychological needs to be met.
“You can't just sit them in a cage three-feet-by-three-feet and expect them to be happy.
“There's one cat there in particular in a very small enclosure, and we are expanding that enclosure.”
When the new owners and team entered the park for the first time, the cats just lay silently in their enclosures.
Craig Busch and some others entered the park later in the afternoon.
“When he was about halfway down the driveway a couple of male lions in the first enclosure, they spotted him.
“They were up to the fence, obviously excited, recognised him, knew who he was, then they were roaring their heads off – and the whole park erupted.
“During that night it was hard to get any sleep, they would all erupt into roaring and carrying on.”
There was a noticeable difference in the demeanour of the cats from a few hours before seeing Craig to seeing him afterwards.
“It's quite something,' says Ian.
“You could still tell, even two or three days later, because Craig's only been in the park twice since November 2008.
“So the cats were probably under the impression, ‘well he's here and he's going to go again,' but I think they settled down in a few days.
“Each cat reacts differently, some were ‘you're here, great' and others were a bit coy to start with.”
Most of Ian's work in the receivership is on the various court proceedings up to and including settlement day, organising the purchase, the logistics of getting in and being on site for the first few days.
The Zion Wildlife Kingdom. Image: Google Earth.
“I've taken on something different I can tell you, it will knock over my spare hours in the day,” says Ian.
“It's been an absolutely enlightening, intriguing, out-of-left-field kind of case to deal with; a whole new facet of the law particularly relating to wildlife regulations, and what people do.
“We are in the home straight with it.
“There will be a few bumps and pot holes in the track, but the finishing line's in sight.”
Troubles at the park made the news when its founder, Lion Man Craig Busch, was locked out of the park by his mother in 2008.
His mother, Patricia Busch, was able to achieve it, says Ian, because in October 2008 as a director she approved an application by Glen Holland to apply for an operator licence.
Craig was unaware of the application.
It was approved on November 3, and on November 6, Craig was locked out.
There are two licences required for a wildlife park such as Zion.
There's the containment facility licence, which applies to the standard of safety concerning the animals' containment, and their welfare.
The second licence is the operator licence issued to a person or a company.
It's for overall management and control of the containment facility for the cats.
Dave Holland was Dannevirk-based and visited intermittently, says Ian.
He finished up after Dalu Mncube's death in late May 2009.
The senior cat handler was killed in front of watching tourists by a white Bengal tiger named Abu.
Ian believes the root of the trouble in 2008 was Craig's decision as park operator that interactive touring with big cats was a dangerous thing to do.
“Cubs are one thing, but a full grown lion or tiger is another, and unfortunately history proves that he was right,” says Ian, “but that's where a lot of stuff stems from”.
The Department of Labour charged the two companies that owned and managed the park over the fatality.
Patricia Busch pleaded guilty last year and the company was fined $60,000.
“There's a coroners inquest due in the next couple of months; so it's still before the court and that's all I can tell you.”
A new application for an operator's licence was lodged with MAF in December, says Ian.
“That takes a while to do, but it's underway,” says Ian.
“Meanwhile, MAF is on site and supervising matters on site, so that everything is compliant.
“There are challenges obviously because the parties have been warring for a while.
“But quite apart from the warring factor from the legal perspective, MAF ultimately has a responsibility to see that the containment facility and the animals are properly managed and fed and everything. For a transition like this their involvement is essential.
“There's one man for that job, and it is not me, that's it,” says Ian when asked if he's going to get hands on with the cats.
Zion Wildlife Gardens and Country Developments went into receivership in August 2011.
The receivers were unable to serve the papers for two weeks and it took a court hearing to gain entry to the park.
That court order stated the receivers would do nothing to interfere with Patricia Busch's duties as the operator, says Ian.
The meaning taken from that was the receivers couldn't sell the park until that court order was lifted.
“It was effectively a Catch 22,” says Ian.
“They are locked in a dance together – the receivers are paying the bills, but can't sell the park.”
That was the issue behind the highly publicised court hearing on January 18, which made news because it put about that the receivers were seeking to euthanize the cats.
“What it was really about, was that the receivers needed to do something to honour their legal duties with the receivership,” says Ian, “which was to realise the assets, which they couldn't do because of the court order”.
“Even the receivers said they have never had a case like it; unique, very costly, but amazing.”
The hearing eventually resulted in a court order rescinding the protection of the current operator Patricia Busch, and opening the door for the purchase.
“It's been a long process,” says Ian.
“It's been waxing and waning – it's a hell of a process to go through.
“In reality, the receivers must have had a lot of difficulty and a lot of costs during their reign which was unavoidable, being locked in – not good.
“They couldn't continue as it was.
“If they can't sell it then the only option left was to either shift or put down the cats – and they are all endangered species.
“They are quite a unique gene pool in Australasia if not worldwide; irreplaceable.”
There's another court hearing in Whangarei next week, says Ian.
That relates to a court injunction Craig Busch obtained last April that prevents the cats being sold, transported or euthanased without the permission of the High Court.