The big cat park is back.

Or, at least, it is this Saturday. 

Whangārei’s Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary, previously known as Zion Wildlife Gardens, is having a public open day on September 16, where visitors will once again be able to see the park’s 13 big cats.

But behind the excitement is the stark reality that the park went into involuntary liquidation in March this year, and it can’t seem to shake its murky past.

Zion Wildlife Gardens burst onto the scene in the early 2000s as founder Craig Busch shot to global fame with his hit television series The Lion Man.

The series followed Busch as he cared for the big cats at the park and Stuff senior journalist Denise Piper says Whangārei locals were “really proud” to have an internationally known park in their backyard.

“The Lion Man series was such a huge thing at the time. 

“Whangārei was a much smaller town than it is now and to have this national and international attention was something really big for the town.” 

But what followed was a series of events, over decades, that no one could have predicted.

There have been legal battles, criminal convictions, employment investigations, a MPI closure that lasted seven years, changes in ownership and tragically, the death of a zookeeper.

“I don’t think Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary could ever step away from all of the things that has happened in its past,” says Piper.

She visited the park just a month before zookeeper Dalu Mncube was mauled to death by a tiger.

“We got to pet one of the tigers and one of the lions while he was there and I noted that he very cautious.

“He was particularly concerned about making sure everyone was safe, making sure [the animal] was put away safely and things like that. So when I met him I thought he was … very aware of what these animals could do.”

Piper also talks about what now for the park and the public response to its reopening.

The question remains though, if Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary had to close, what are the options for the big cats?

Phil Seddon, a professor of zoology at the University of Otago, says it’s limited for captive animals.

“When you take on any wildlife in any captive situation you really have a long-term duty of care for them, to make sure they’re looked after for the course of their life.”

He also explains the change in attitude to animals in captivity over the years.

“I think you come down to, what is the role of zoos? And this is something that has been changing over the years. For over a hundred years, people have been complaining about wild animals in captivity.”

Find out more about the zoo’s storied history by listening to the full episode.

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Jessie Chiang is the associate producer of The Detail podcast.

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