Craig "The Lion Man" Busch has told of his pride and joy in being back with his big cats, at the renamed Kingdom of Zion wildlife park.
Busch is this weekend celebrating the official reopening of the park, on the outskirts of Whangarei.
Yesterday he invited Sunday News into the big cat reserve for a special behind-the-scenes tour.
In between mingling with well-wishers, he said: "To be back here is unreal ... it took about a week to actually realise that I am home.
"The minute I did get here, they [big cats] realised dad was home. They must have roared for about two days.
"It is like a lion orchestra ... an orchestra that is absolutely beautiful."
In January, it was confirmed Busch – who set up the park in 2002, handed control to his mother Patricia Busch in 2006, and whose employment there ended two years later – would return to Zion.
His return followed the park's sale by receivers to new owners.
After being away from the park – and its remaining 35 lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopard and serval – for three years, Craig Busch said there were still moments he pinched himself to reassure him he really was back.
"I live for these animals," he said. "My whole life is used up on these guys because that is what I believe in."
Busch's "lion orchestra" roared with apparent glee during his three-hour escorted tour around the park's sprawling grounds for Sunday News yesterday.
He also showed his bond with his "best mate", Zion the lion.
"He is the most special lion here ... and the most different," Busch said.
"He is very protective of his dad. He doesn't like other people too close to me or any other lion. And no matter where I am, myself and him can feel each other."
The big cat park's name has changed from Zion Wildlife Gardens to Kingdom of Zion during his absence.
"I love the name Kingdom of Zion. It suits the park and gives that sort of Disney-kind of feel to the park," Busch said. "And if you look at some of the cats, they are almost like characters of Disney.
"It is what it means to me ... it is a paradise for the cats and the people who come here."
Busch was committed to continuing the big cats' welfare, and adding some new features to the park. "It will be a park that will be themed into different settings, from where the animal's origins is.
"I am one man doing many things. And all the dreams come from my head. Good things take time ... it revolves around money and manpower."
Before his return, Busch spent time in South Africa, including helping promote conservation attempts to save the white rhino from poachers.
He said even while thousands of kilometres away from "home", Zion's big cats had been ever in his heart.
"It has been on my mind every second and every minute of every day," he said.
Busch thanked staunch supporters for helping him return to the park, including 76,000 fans on his official Facebook page.
"They have given a lot of support over the time. There are so many people around the world that actually believe in what I do and love what I do. I am very lucky to have that following and I am very grateful."
ANOTHER SERIES LIKELY
Busch has confirmed he is in talks with prospective broadcasters about an imminent return to reality TV.
Busch found worldwide fame and acclaim as star of The Lion Man television series, which gave big cat fans an insight into his animal handling skills and life behind the scenes at the Zion wildlife park.
While filming ceased on The Lion Man in the mid-2000s, repeats of the show are still being played in more than 100 countries around the world.
"There will be another Lion Man show ... there will be quite a few," Busch said.
"I am talking to different ones [broadcasters] around the world and I have not made a decision yet."
A film crew was on site yesterday, filming Busch's interaction with his big cats and scores of fans who attended the Kingdom of Zion's official reopening over Easter weekend. During his three-year absence from the park, Busch also completed some filming in the wild in South Africa.
"I am going to do filming for the rest of my life," he said.
"I didn't use to like it when I first started years ago. But now I enjoy it. I think it is a necessary thing to actually help educate and teach people around the world.
"If people can learn from that, that will actually put a smile on my face."
Asked the secret behind The Lion Man's success, Busch replied: "It is real ... and the realness shows – it shows on screen."
- © Fairfax NZ News