Does everyone remember ‘The Lion Man’ tv show? Where Craig Busch, a NZ fellow, would walk the big cats around the park and play with them?
When we decided to to New Zealand i instantly knew i wanted to go see Craig Busch’s lion park. I had watched him avidly and with great admiration on his show. The show followed an average day in the life of Kiwi Craig Busch while he ran his wildlife park, where he undertook to preserve his much-loved big cat species from extinction. I watched him in awe play with the big cats, discipline them, look after them, feed them and walk them and saw them react to him like a father. His love and dedication to these majestic animals was never in question. I especially enjoyed watching his bond with favourite lion, and to who the park is enivatibly named after, Zion. It was heart-warming. They were like best friends.
The park entry fee is $60 for the guided tour which is 90 minutes. Booking recommended. There are other tours ranging in prices. There is the feeding tour, the enrichment tour the behind the scenes tour ($175 per person) and others. The website and brochure also advertise a tour with Craig himself if he is not unavailable with prior engagements. I emailed about this tour with Craig but was told he was ‘unavailable’. Fair enough! I was a bit disappointed because i would have loved to meet someone i admired for many years.
The tour guide escorts you around the park and introduces you to all of the big cats – the lions, tigers and cheetahs. To name but a few there are Savannah, Zion, Shanti, Shakira, Aslan. She explained to us all of their ages, temperaments, origins, feeding habits, hopes for their futures etc. While giving us a few funny stories to go with each of their characters. They are extremely beautiful animals and because of the New Zealand cold and the fact that the tour was close to feeding time they were all extremely active and engaging which is rare because in most zoos the big cats are usually passed out, not moving at all.
And Zion… What a lion. He really is the alphamale of the park. His enclosure is perched above all the other on a little upwards gradiented slope. His likeness was used for the character of Aslan the lion in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe film. He was also used in this All Blacks rugby advertisement. He has been the face of a few other sporting events. This is one talented animal.
The one thing i would say that bothered me tremoundously was when the guide told us that they are not allowed to touch the big cats anymore under NZ law. This must be a new thing! I was shocked. I then asked her ‘You said you aren’t allowed to touch the lions anymore? That must be new? Isn’t that what the show was all about? Because we were in a lot of different zoos and they put on shows with the tigers and lions’… To which she gave a very evasive, uncomfortable answer of ‘Not allowed in NZ anymore. Yes, we have a new season of the show airing soon in The UK’… I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t you answer my question? Why and when did the law in NZ change?’ Although i had a pretty good idea of when this law changed. I am not too confident of the details but i know that the park went into receivership a few years back (she mentioned so herself on the tour) and Craig was not managing anymore. During this period a staff member was killed by one of the lions or tigers. It was a horrible tragedy and anyone who watched Craig’s tv interview of his thoughts on what happened would never doubt his utter shock and devastation at this event. Nothing like that had ever happened while he was present in the park and when it was under his control. I know the tour is supposed to showcase the big cats but i never expected to have a question shrugged off like that. Bad things happen in every company in the world, you can’t pretend they didn’t happen, its how you face them and move on that tells more about who you are. I didn’t expect her to go into gorey details but i expected more than that. Any other tour i have ever done welcomes questions and curiosity. I expect maybe they have had their fare share of people doing the tours purely to get the juicy story and hear all of the bad things that have happened. I only asked because to deprive animals who have been hand-reared by humans like Zion and Savannah human contact is borderline cruel. I am not saying this as a criticism of the park but of the new law! In fairness, the tour guide says that they are constantly discovering new ways to give the cats human contact, like reading to them every other day. They really like this and it promotes the closeness factor that they now have to go without. I was impressed by this. It shows they are overcoming the obstacles that have been put in their way.
In general, the cats seem really happy where they are. We had the opportunity to hear all of them roaring to each other across each of their respective enclosures, like a massive pre-dinner chorus of a big, furry, fiesty family. The tour guide explained their hopes for the future, which include plans to build bigger enclosures for each of the cats.
The park itself has a forlorn feel (maybe it was the overcast weather!?) even though it is nestled beautifully in the mountains of Northland, New Zealand. Maybe this is because of the turbulent times the park has seen and the slow but steady hard work it is taking to get it back up and running. I have no doubt this is a pain-staking process but the new season of The Lion Man will be airing soon and the guide explained her hope that due to this show new investors will train their eye on the park and decide to put money into it to go towards the new enclosures and everything else they feel the park needs. I have every confidence that Craig Busch and his band of cats will not roll over and admit defeat due to the roadblocks that have been put in their way. The cats are all extremely loveable with great personalities from what i could see and what they are doing up there – keeping an endangered species alive – is great work. I wonder what the new season of the show will be like without the hands-on factor it had before. Suppose i’ll just have to wait and see. I would urge people to go and see Kingdom of Zion. Keep Craig’s dream alive.