An experienced big cat handler who previously saved a fellow game-keeper from a tiger attack was himself fatally mauled at the zoo made famous by the "Lion Man" television show.
South African keeper Dalu Mncube was killed by a white tiger today while cleaning an enclosure with another keeper at the Zion Wildlife Gardens, near Whangarei, the zoo which featured Craig Busch on the hit television show the "Lion Man".
Despite the best efforts of the other staff members who rushed to his aid, the male tiger would not let Mr Mncube go and he died at the scene from "tearing" injuries to his head, torso and lower leg.
The tiger is believed to be Abu, a tiger who attacked keeper Demetri Price in February, until Mr Mncube forced the animal to let go.
The white tiger, one of only 120 in the world, has been put down and the park has been closed, while police and Department of Labour staff investigate further.
Eight tourists witnessed the attack, and with distressed park workers, were today receiving counselling from Victim Support staff.
At a press conference this afternoon, Northland police Inspector Paul Dimery said the attack was being treated as a criminal investigation, but there was nothing to suggest the death was suspicious.
"But I'd rather be safe than sorry. It's not very nice in there."
On the Zion website, Mr Mncube was described as second-in-charge to Mr Busch, who has since been fired from the park by his mother Patricia Busch.
Mr Mncube is survived by his partner Sharon Arnott and one-year-old daughter Starskea.
Mr Busch released a written statement that said he was deeply upset at the news of the attack.
"This is an absolutely tragic event for all involved. It is a terrible personal blow for me as I knew the keeper well. My thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues," said Mr Busch.
He offered to assist the police and other investigating authorities.
"I am still unsure of the exact circumstances involved and cannot comment any further."
In February, Mr Mncube plunged his fingers into the mouth of a white male tiger Abu that had latched onto the knee of his fellow game-keeper Demetri Price, then using a fire extinguisher to force the animal to release him.
"I never got scared," Mr Mncube told the Herald at the time of the February attack. "You stay nice and calm. If I got scared and panicked we could have had two casualties...it happened in a flash. It was over before we knew it."
The death of Mr Mncube is the third animal attack in recent times at the park, which is home to more than 40 lions and tigers.
As well as the mauling of Mr Price, Lisa Baxter was left scarred for life in April 2008, when an African white lion sunk its teeth into both her hands.
Mrs Busch and Ms Baxter were both criticised by a Department of Labour investigation.
Ms Baxter, a Scottish teenager working at the park, was chastised for putting her hands through a hole in the fence designed for television cameras to stroke a cub, while Mrs Busch failed to notify the authorities.
Buddhist monks were called in March to bless the park and bring peace to the animals after the attacks.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Coroner have also been advised of Mr Mncube's death.
A MAF report released in November indicated that inspectors were so concerned about conditions at Zion that they considered having 40 big cats put down. This is disputed by the park's owners.
The wildlife park is also the subject of a court battle between TV personality Mr Busch and his mother.
In December, Mr Busch lost his battle for temporary reinstatement to his job until his claim of unjustified dismissal was heard.
He has been giving evidence at a Employment Relations Authority hearing this week challenging his dismissal.By Jared Savage, Moana Tapaleao
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