Fears of an international backlash deterred the then Ministry of Agriculture from considering closing down Whangarei's Zion Wildlife Gardens, despite six attacks by the big cats in the park, a court has heard.
Dr Barry Wards, a specialist adviser to the ministry, yesterday told an inquest into the death of Clifford (Dalu) MnCube that the political backlash from supporters of Lion Man Craig Busch after he was sacked from the park reached the very top of Government, including Prime Minister John Key.
The ministry determined that based on the level of support Mr Busch had, revoking the park's operating licence would seriously harm New Zealand's international reputation, he said.
An online campaign was launched, particularly by Mr Busch's UK-based supporters, to help him reunite with the big cats after he was sacked by his mother, Patricia, in 2008. He returned after new owners took charge and renamed it Zion Wildlife Kingdom in February.
Dr Wards was questioned extensively by Anthony Jackson, lawyer for Mr MnCube's partner Sharon Arnott, on the ministry's concerns about safety and actions it took to remedy the situation. He said closing the park would have put the welfare of 40 big cats at risk.
Dr Wards said politically, it would have been an extremely difficult decision for the Crown to make to either export, euthanase or transfer the animals elsewhere in New Zealand.
A contingency plan was drawn up and the then minister, David Carter, was briefed on its contents.
The view of his supporters, he said, was that Mr Busch was being removed from the animals he reared.
"If that decision [to close the park] was made, there would have been an outcry ... directed at the ministry."
Asked why the ministry did not issue an operator's licence to Mrs Busch after Mr MnCube died, he said she was not fully aware of the requirements in relation to the operation and containment of animals.
Specialist adviser Howard Hamilton said there had been five animal attacks since January 2007 on either park staff or the public before Mr MnCube's death in May 2009. The ministry was not informed about a staff member being bitten in January 2007 until June 2009.
Closing the inquest, Northland Coroner Brandt Shortland indicated he would make adverse comments in his draft findings but said all parties would be given an opportunity to respond.