23rd October 2008
Zion Wildlife Gardens
With nearly thirty years spent managing game reserves and zoos in Africa and New
Zealand, including very recently seven years as the director of Auckland Zoo, I have been
very pleasantly impressed at the standard of animal care and knowledge/ability shown by
the staff at Zion Wildlife Gardens (ZWG). The surprise, which I did not expect, was the
risk and number of issues that the current operator is imposing on the business.
Considering these issues, his lack of adherence to the MAF Zoo Operator requirements
and the fact that he has a criminal record it is surprising that he has been approved as the
Synopsis of Key Issues created by The Operator
The operator is clearly trying to damage the business as I witnessed with issues –
whether financially (e.g. the cancellation of the cat interactive tours) or by
attempting ruin the credibility of the ZWG by creating issues/incidents that could
The cancellation of big cat interactive tours, which are clearly in high demand, is
affecting the revenue of ZWG which in turn acts to impede the costly work required
to remedy the costly MAF containment requirements. These tours have been
conducted regularly by existing staff (as seen on the TV Programme), without the
operator present and very often when the operator off-site without any issues and
with his approval.
The operator is responsible for ensuring that all MAF zoo and containment
standards are adhered to. This includes a regularly updated zoo manual with safety
protocols, staff training records etc which has been written but in many cases not
put into practise. The current operator has created a park with numerous areas that
do not meet containment standards, little or no formal staff training, firearms
which are meant to be accessible to staff now locked away in his house etc etc – he
now blames all these issues on the director where clearly he, as operator is
While there are always improvements needed in animal welfare and enrichment it is
interesting to note that the welfare issues which have been reported to MAF such
as the de-clawing of cats and having too many animals in too small an enclosure are
all situations created under the direction of the operator. He has claimed innocence
and laid the blame on the director.
The park manual which was compiled by the operator has as one of its objectives to
ensure “quality behavioural and enrichment programmes”. The only sign of the most
basic enrichment in the enclosures are a few tree stumps which staff have placed
there in his absence and one staff member said when he came back he said “you
crack me up” thus belittling what we had done. Only one tiger has a pool – one of the
basic but best enrichments for this species. He has stopped the big cat walks which
were also a form of enrichment for the cat being taken out and for those which the
cat would walk past. When I questioned the staff about enrichment it was clear that
adding novel enrichment on a regular basis is not part of the culture which the
operator has created in the park.
The lack of staff training is a key issue with such potentially dangerous animals. The
senior handler and another key staff member/animal handler I spoke to said they
have never actually received any training from the operator. In personal
communication with him he told me he was undertaking “re-training” before he would
sign off any staff to work with the cats – he stopped the cat walks etc about five
months ago. Staff confirmed that no training apart from the one incident described
below had taken place.
In a recent “training exercise” the operator broke the norm/rules, including his own,
when he told two staff (as an incentive) that if they ran with a tiger, he would sign
them off as big cat handlers. The two staff did as he said and at different times
both were knocked down by tigers who instinctively gave chase – one of the staff
members had a tiger attempt to bite him on the leg and the other ended up with the
tiger pinning him down and going for his throat. The tiger was beaten off by the
other staff member while the operator stood 50-100 metres away and made no
attempt to assist the situation but rather kept encouraging them to repeat the
performance. The operator said he was teaching them how to react in case of such
Clearly one does not create a “live” situation for such a drill. Training and
conditioning of animals rests on a consistent and calm approach. I could not help
wonder if the operator was looking for a serious incident that would assist him in
his attempts to damage the parks reputation and ability to operate even further.
The operator is unstable – staff do not trust him/feel comfortable when he joins
them with the animals. All the staff have said he has terrific mood swings and
constantly changes his mind. He is not dependable and for example called a meeting
to discuss training that would occur the following day and the next day the staff
waited as agreed only to have the operator not make an appearance.
Staff and the director seem to have little/no idea of his movements on/off site and
even in and out of the country at times – the operator or his nominee should be at all
It is interesting that the operator has had numerous bites/wounds from cats but
the staff have none! Two of the key cat handlers both told me that many of the
cats become unpredictable when the operator is in close proximity.
Staff reported that the operator had at the very last minute cancelled a number of
tours which he was due to conduct, leaving the staff to have to deal with upset and
irate visitors. One staff member said he referred to the public as “parasites”. This
from the person who set the culture amongst the staff.
The operator is seldom on site/with the staff, there are no regular formal staff
meetings to discuss issues, progress, proposals and direction. The operator has not
ensured regular training, boundary and other containment checks and other basics as
required by MAF. With his constant absences over, he can not possibly have his finger on
It would appear from his cancellation of big cat interactive tours, deliberately putting
staff safety at risk and other mischief that staff have mentioned, that he is determined
to bring the business into financial difficulties and bad reputation. One senior staff
member said he had been told by the operator that this was his objective and that in this
way he intended eventually to sell the park.
The operator is unstable with enormous mood swings and as mentioned the majority of
staff are not comfortable in his presence. I personally questioned, with the director and
legal team, the situation where he has the firearms locked in his house with regards the
safety of all of those on site. One staff member said without any mention of the
firearms from me that he often felt uncomfortable with his back to the operators house
“I can feel the bullet heading for my back!”
I have personally never encountered such a risky situation and find it difficult to believe
that the operator has got away with as much as he has by “pulling the wool over the eyes”
of the police, MAF and some individuals. There is an accident waiting to happen and the
longer the issues are not addressed, the greater the chance of serious harm to a
person/s on the site.
The park has tremendous potential and good staff – it is a pity to see such a recipe for
success being destroyed by the antics of one person.