Zoo staff ‘felt unsafe’ around Lion Man

Staff at Zion Wildlife Gardens felt so “unsafe” around former big-cat handler Craig “Lion Man” Busch that new management spent almost $100,000 upgrading internal security.

The revelation has been made in a ruling by Employment Relations Authority member Yvonne Oldfield, ordering Mr Busch to pay those running his former wildlife park near Whangarei more than $25,000 to cover the costs of damaged and missing equipment and the proceeds of a photoshoot at the reserve.

Mr Busch is in a long-running battle with his mother, Patricia, for control of Zion Wildlife Gardens Ltd (ZWGL) after being dismissed from the park in November 2008.

In statements from the legal team representing Zion Wildlife Gardens, Ms Oldfield was told that “Mr Busch behaved in ways that intimidated and threatened park staff, including Mrs Busch”. Witnesses had said “he was prone to irrational, unpredictable and aggressive behaviour”.

Ms Oldfield was told that in May 2008, Mr Busch entered the office area and “despite protests from the administrative worker present”, removed files and animal records, which he later refused to return.

A security guard was later hired and stationed outside Mrs Busch’s home on Zion land to “protect her when she was sleeping”. During the day, the guard “was stationed outside the enclosure where materials were stored to ensure that items there were not removed”.

ZWGL told the authority it had spent $96,378.50 on upgrading security; a figure that included security guard hire, new locks and the installation of security cameras.

Ms Oldfield wrote: “I am satisfied that some staff at the park genuinely felt unsafe in Mr Busch’s presence.

“However, some witnesses who had worked with him for some time had long held the view that he was volatile and aggressive.” But despite ruling that Mr Busch must cover the costs for a range of equipment at the park, Ms Oldfield said he should not be responsible for the security costs because she was “not satisfied” they were related to any breach of an employment agreement.

Neither did she find Mr Busch liable for costs related to the cancelling of interactive tours at the park in May 2008.

His decision to do that followed an approach to Mrs Busch for funds to declaw some young cubs so they could be used for interactive tours.

Three staff members told Mrs Busch that her son had made the decision “with the intention of damaging the business”.

But Ms Oldfield said in her ruling: “Mr Busch says that he had ultimate responsibility for the safe running of the park and the decision he took was reasonable in light of concerns he held in relation to health and safety issues at the time.

“Mr Busch said his concerns were vindicated, at about the time he cancelled the tours, when a volunteer was bitten by one of the animals.”

The interactive tours were restarted after Mr Busch’s dismissal, but halted again five months later after the fatal mauling of handler Dalu Mncube.

Mr Busch opened Zion in 2002, and went on to front the worldwide-hit television show, The Lion Man.

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/5062161/Zoo-staff-felt-unsafe-around-Lion-Man

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