OPINION: Natureland's position looked precarious in 1999 before the Abel Tasman Gateway Trust took it on. The local trust ultimately struggled to make ends meet, and the park was even closer to closure nine years later before Christchurch-based white knight Orana Wildlife Trust rode in and took over operations and some of the costs.
Nelson City councillors, having decided in 2008 to withdraw funding and preparing to make the hard call over the fate of the resident animals, faced a significant public backlash. About 2000 people signed a petition. Letters to the editor backing the park flooded in. Supporters took to the streets.
The Orana deal represented a life-saver for the animals and a face-saver for city councillors, even while Natureland's situation also sparked debate about the role and relevance of zoos, especially those housing exotic species. Those opposed found ammunition in recalling the situation of one-time resident chimpanzee Pan, who had a range of unfortunate habits presumably born of frustration and boredom.
Now, events of nature far from the zoo's Tahunanui home have caused its situation to become precarious again. The Canterbury earthquakes have decimated visitor numbers to Orana Park, and consequently income, while subsequent snow dumps have also hit the parent facility. Last week alone, snow damage there was estimated at $40,000. Understandably, the trust, which has been running both zoo parks, has made the decision to retreat from Nelson this year and put all of its focus on the Christchurch facility.
The city council will discuss Natureland's fate in just under a fortnight. Mayor Aldo Miccio says that in the meantime it will be business as usual. However, it is timely for councillors to reconsider the fate of the zoo, if a ratepayer contribution of at least $150,000 a year is appropriate, and whether Natureland still meets the needs of the community.
There is clearly some sort of demand, particularly among school groups and families. It has received more than 30,000 visitors a year during Orana's involvement, compared with 12,000 in 1999. It provides valuable up-close experiences of a range of birds and animals, both exotic and native, common and comparatively rare.
There are formal education programmes, and a successful tuatara breeding programme run in conjunction with local iwi Ngati Koata. It was about to be expanded, staff numbers had increased and it was even considering introducing red pandas. That will be on hold now and city councillors again face a tough decision about the zoo's future.
One thing is clear – even without pending back-to-basics local government legislative reform, the council is not and should not be in the business of operating zoos. For supporters, the most attractive option is for another operator with experience in animal and zoo management to be found to take over from the Orana trust. Closure would be a tough call, but it is difficult to support keeping the place open unless the appropriate operator comes forward and ratepayer support is kept tightly controlled.
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