News that Zion Wildlife Park has been placed in receivership has revived hopes that the Lion Man could return to rescue the big cats. As Geoff Cumming reports, that may not be in the animals' best interests.
Watching Craig Busch playing with Shakira and other lions on old Lion Man episodes, you can't help but believe in the guy.
See the Lion Man cuddling and cavorting with giant cats; his rapport like a modern-day Mowgli. See him ride the lion; see a white tiger (extinct in the wild) being born ...
Busch's X-factor was as rare as his charges were said to be: he was an actor not upstaged by animals. The series has screened in 140 countries; its pulling power a mix of awe at Busch's fearlessness, empathy with co-stars as cute as they were lethal and sympathy with Zion Wildlife's stated conservation goals - a breeding programme to ensure the survival of "endangered species" including white lions, royal white bengal tigers and barbary lions.
Seeing is believing. Great Southern Television's Philip Smith, who discovered the khaki-costumed cat handler, says Busch was "Krusty the Clown meets Daktari". The show had universal themes about conservation and nurture and fitted the elusive formula of bonding television - parents could enjoy it with their kids.
What viewers didn't know was that Busch's mastery over 250kg killers was not just down to their hand-rearing and life of dependency. They had secretly been declawed, a practice decried by animal welfare experts.
"It's one of those things that should never, ever be done - there's no excuse for it," says zoo expert Tim Husband, who discovered the practice at Zion in June 2009.
"You see photos where he's got his hand out and one of the lions is smacking his hand as if they are shaking hands. Well, if it had claws, it would have ripped his arm off.
"It was all done for TV so the man could play Tarzan. It's a disgusting procedure that no reputable zoo would ever do."
Other experts began to question the conservation value of breeding animals which were extinct in the wild and could never survive in it. More sub-plots were simmering, including a lawsuit from a former business partner who claimed to have seen nothing from a $400,000 investment. It seems Busch expected to have the same command over humans that he enjoyed with big cats.
The train crash that has unfolded since, in agonisingly slow motion, has left the Lion Man scarred but not mortally wounded. His sacking from the wildlife park near Whangarei in December 2008 followed more than two years of friction after his mother Patricia bailed him out financially and took control. This acrimony occasionally ended in police call-outs.
Busch did not react well to ceding control and the pair have since continued to claw at each other through the courts. He claims to still own the animals; she says he can have the place back if he repays the $1.2 million she claims to have invested.
In May, Busch was fined $25,000 by the Employment Relations Authority over his conduct as an employee in the lead-up to his dismissal. Smith recalls that Busch warned him at an early meeting he was better with animals than with humans.
Like a cub cast out by a lioness, Busch prowls in Africa, longing to be reunited with his 36 cats in Kamo country while raising funds over the internet. Last known watering hole: the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg. His 70,000 Facebook followers (most of them based in Britain, where the series ran in prime-time) worry about the fate of the cats without their Lion Man and savage his website critics.
This week, Zion Wildlife Gardens was placed in receivership by Rabobank, which claims to be owed about $2.7 million, according to Patricia Busch's lawyer, Evgeny Orlov. He says the bulk of the alleged debt is a secured mortgage on the land and there was no need to call in the receivers.
Craig Busch's supporters are talking-up the prospect of the Lion Man's return, claiming he has the money for a buy-back. The other stuff - the debts, the litigation, the assault convictions, even the declawing - they are willing to overlook for his avowed save-the-species motives.
Painted as the villain in this social networking bubble is Patricia Busch, who re-mortgaged her Cambridge farm in 2006 (and has since sunk her life savings into the venture) and moved on to the property after her son ran into financial difficulties. These included an alleged $400,000 debt to a former business partner and $250,000 in legal bills defending serious assault charges - after he came home to find his partner Karen Greybrook in bed with another couple. Greybrook, a committed conservationist who worked at the park, died of cancer last month.
But even his mother's camp is not immune to using the big cats as pawns. Patricia Busch this week claimed the receivers were not interested in working with her and raised the prospect that the cats could be put down. The receivers, from PricewaterhouseCoopers, say they were denied access to the property and the welfare of the animals is their highest priority.
In a press release, barrister Orlov claims to have "looked into the faces of these beautiful animals and felt a little of what Craig and Patricia Busch must have felt - that there is some higher purpose... in the universe which stares out from these powerful eyes."
On Thursday, fresh from court action with the receivers over access to the property, Orlov wrote to the Prime Minister for help.
Zion now proposes setting up a charitable trust so the Government, Northland council and the public can bankroll "the continuation of the wildlife preservation project". Zion even invited Craig Busch to return to "join forces to save the animals".
Trouble is, he owes his mother $1.2 million, Orlov says. He also faces court action by lawyer Wayne Peters over an alleged $86,000 debt. Another obstacle: MAF revoked his operating licence after his dismissal.
The problems at Zion are, inevitably, less enthralling than the mother and son catfight. It traded heavily on Craig Busch and the TV series, drawing tourists willing to pay big dollars for interactive encounters - entering enclosures to feed, pat and be photographed with the big cats.
After handler Dalu Mncube was mauled to death by a white tiger while cleaning its enclosure in May 2009, authorities put a stop to interactive encounters and ordered safety improvements. MAF also learned that Busch's close affinity with the big cats was only possible because they had been declawed. By law, this painful and debilitating procedure should only be done for medical reasons but MAF shelved its investigation when it discovered MAF-contracted vets had condoned the practice.
They bought the line that close interaction was pivotal to Zion's income stream - and that helped ensure the survival of the species.
Denied the close encounters, Patricia Busch has failed to find other ways to boost visitor numbers and recoup her investment. Sources say she has been consumed by litigation - involving not just her son but Labour Department charges relating to Mncube's death, to which Zion pleaded guilty last month - and by legal and financial advisers.
Tim Husband, a zoo consultant who came in to sort out the park after Mncube was killed, says it's still possible to make the attraction a going concern. "You could drop another million dollars in that place and not see it - better exhibits and visitor facilities and employing decent staff," says Whangarei-born Husband, now working in Bali.
"That's the problem when a park is just a commercial park that relies on someone like the Lion Man to be up there in the media. As soon as that person's gone the revenue drops and then the park suffers."
Husband introduced animal care improvements at Zion, including regimes to counter the long-term effects of declawing - a practice he says is condoned only by circuses.
"It's like taking your first knuckle off your finger just below your finger nail - you take that part of the claw off to stop the claw growing back. It means the cat has no claws to grip anything. Over time, the legs start to splay out and the animal gets problems with its hips and shoulders. "We set up a behavioural enrichment programme because they can't climb anymore and grip their food or do simple things like ripping into a tree."
Husband left after nine months with recommendations to widen the range of animals, improve exhibits and facilities and set up an income-earning training school for big cat handlers. He suspects Patricia Busch has spent all her money on litigation.
"Her heart was in the right place but the world is full of people who love animals and keep adopting stray dogs and cats - that does not mean they are going to get the best quality of life."
Husband's views are backed by Peter Dickinson, a Thailand-based zookeeper, curator and editor of the zoonewsdigest blogsite, who says there was "nothing magical" about Busch's animal antics.
"If you hand-rear something like that you take a risk but it's a risk you can handle if you remove the claws, which is a terrible thing to do. It's a practice learned from the circus where Busch learned to work with big cats."
Dickinson says animals bred at Zion are not part of a reputable international breeding programme. The so-called royal white Bengal tigers are "just interbred animals popular in zoos" and could never be returned to the wild.
He says the receivers may find if difficult to find new homes for the cats and "no zoo will pay for them".
"Let them live out their natural lives but don't breed from them."
How it unfolded
Early 2003: Zion Wildlife Gardens opens in Kamo. Most lions are offspring of a pair Craig Busch obtained from a circus.
June 2004: Great Southern Television's Lion Man screens on TV2 for first time.
Feb 2006: Auckland property developer Rob Reece lays civil claim that he received no return on more than $400,000 he invested with Busch.
July 2006: Patricia Busch buys in to repay her son's debts and takes control of Zion.
May 2007: Busch convicted of assaulting former partner Karen Greybrook after finding her in bed with a couple.
Dec 2008: Busch sacked for alleged misconduct including cancellation of interactive tours and safety breaches.
May 2009: Cat handler Dalu Mncube is mauled to death by a white tiger while cleaning its cage. MAF temporarily closes the zoo and the Labour Dept serves two improvement notices.
June 2009: The park reopens with requirements to have separation facilities in all enclosures and preventing staff having direct contact with adult lions, tigers and leopards.
Dec 2009: Zion charged for health and safety breaches over Mncube's death.
May 2011: Craig Busch ordered to pay $25,000 by Employment Relations Authority for breaching employment agreement with Zion.
June 2011: Zion pleads guilty to health and safety breaches over Mncube's death.
July 2011: Rabobank calls in receivers claiming $2.7m is owed.