Parties in talks to take over zoo

A St Arnaud farmer and the former owners of a farm park in Golden Bay are the two parties the Nelson City Council is talking to about taking over Natureland zoo in Tahunanui.

Richard Osmaston, who runs a 41-hectare organic farm at St Arnaud, aims to run Natureland as a public farmlet where animals would mostly roam freely and young people could connect with rural life.

He also plans to use his proposed model as a tool to promote sustainable management practices using volunteer efforts and public generosity, with entry to be by voluntary donation.

In a separate option, Matthew and Ruth Benge, the former owners of Bencarri Nature Park in Takaka, confirmed they have expressed an interest in Natureland but were yet to begin negotiations with the council.

The council called for expressions of interest to take over the Tahunanui zoo after Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Trust, which has run Natureland since 2008, announced in June it was pulling out as a result of hardship suffered in the wake of the earthquakes. It was the second time in four years that Natureland had faced a crisis over its future.

Public outrage at the council's plans in 2008 to close Natureland, which has been operating since the 1960s, prompted the Orana trust's involvement.

Mr Osmaston said his proposal would involve moving a regular supply of younger, smaller animals to Natureland from his farm and two others he helped stock and manage.

"It would open initially with piglets, chooks, goats, a dog or two, a horse and a pony.

"It's important to put the animals' safety and welfare before our entertainment and so the plan would be to continue to move them around between farms and Natureland as necessary."

Mr Osmaston, who was raised on a farm in England and who had a long career in aviation before moving to New Zealand with his family almost a decade ago, said the plan for Natureland was the extension of a system that has been in use for a long time.

"It is well proven and only utilises existing, reliable and non-challenging ‘guest animals', infrastructure and skills.

"Basically, some local farms would have some of their smaller and younger animals staying in Tahuna, where they would be accessible to everybody."

Mr Osmaston felt it was important that young children had the opportunity to connect with a rural environment.

The proposed model would rely largely on voluntary input, therefore, the cost burden on the council would be reduced significantly. Annual running costs to date have ranged from between $400,000 to $500,000 funded by gate takings, the council and the Orana trust.

"We [family] already have the resources to operate Natureland on a reduced scale. The more voluntary resources we have available, the bigger and better we shall be," Mr Osmaston said.

"It is our belief and experience that if there are no volunteers at all, then Nelson doesn't really want a Natureland anyway."

Costs could also be reduced through having basic farm animals only, meaning feeding requirements would be "hugely simplified". No animals would be caged, unless "absolutely necessary".

It now costs $9 for an adult and $4.50 for a child to visit the zoo, or $22.50 for a family of two adults and two children.

Mr Benge said he would prefer to comment on what they planned at a later date.

"We have looked at it before and believe it could be quite something, but there are principles to follow to make it viable."

He said New Zealand was "littered" with farm parks and he knew of only three that were self-funded. The remainder relied on charities and councils to help run them.

The council aims to have an arrangement in place with a new operator within the first quarter of 2013.

The Nelson Mail