Euthanising some of the big cats at Zion Wildlife Gardens may be inevitable because no zoo in New Zealand has the facilities to take on many of the park's larger cats, "distressed" local zookeepers say.
The fate of 36 big cats at the Northland park is still to be decided in the High Court, with a hearing set to take place tomorrow.
A lawyer for park operator Patricia Busch has accused receivers of attempting to have the animals put down.
Receivers claim the legal action is to support a sale which will keep the park open and protect the welfare of its animals.
Wellington Zoo chief executive and Australasian Zoo and Aquarium Association chair Karen Fifield said whatever the result of the legal action, some of the big cats may have to be put down due to poor health or difficulties rehoming them.
"It's absolutely horrible. We're all very distressed about this. Those of us who run responsible zoos are absolutely distressed over this. You can't hide from the fact that it may be euthanasia for some of them."
Ms Fifield said New Zealand zoos have little room to house more big cats and are bound by rules governing which animals they import.
They only obtain healthy animals that match the genetics of their existing animals - from other zoos who adhere to the Australasian Zoo and Aquarium Association code of practice, she said.
Zion Wildlife Garden was not a member of the association.
"We're not an SPCA for animals," Ms Fifield said. "It makes us seem really uncaring if we say we can't take them, but it is the big picture that we have to look at."
Overseas zoos could be interested in taking the Zion Wildlife Gardens animals, Ms Fifield said.
Lynn Anderson, chief executive of Orana Park in Christchurch, said euthanising the big cats would be a last resort.
She would consider taking some of the Northland park's cheetah - provided they could contribute to a breeding program in her park.
However, no zoo in New Zealand had the facilities to take on many of the park's larger big cats, she said.
"We just don't have the facilities. No other zoo in New Zealand has. It's as simple as that.
Ms Anderson said a long legal process and thorough health assessments had to be worked out before the fate of the big cats was decided.
"Until it's settled who owns them, nothing can be done."
Receiver and PwC Partner Mr Colin McCloy earlier this afternoon said he was committed to the welfare of the Zion Wildlife Gardens big cats.
"The welfare of the wildlife at Zion is a priority for the receivers and their appointor, Rabobank, and food and veterinary care have continued to be provided by the receivers, funded by their appointor.
"The receivers will be in a better position to discuss progress further in the coming weeks. At this stage, we cannot discuss the ongoing sale process, due to commercial sensitivity."
However, Ms Busch's lawyer Evgeny Orlov has accused receivers of trying to have the big cats put down.
He said the most tragic aspect was that the animals facing destruction were highly endangered and protected by international conventions.
The park's collection of white Bengal tigers, which is possibly the biggest in the world, was of particular conservation value, he said.
"These are breeding pairs, so they can actually breed, which means they can enhance the bloodline. So to kill them, or even contemplate killing them or even separating them, is a crime in an ethical sense.
"It's terrifying, and it also breaches every single convention we could have thought of.''
However, the Zoo Aquarium Association has argued the white Bengals are not a separate breed of tigers.
Their colour is caused by recessive genes and there is no value in creating a breeding program for the animals, a ZAA statement said.
Zion Wildlife Garden was opened in 2002 by Craig Busch, star of the television show Lion Man.
It was taken over by his mother Patricia Busch in 2006 after she raised money to pay off the park's debts.
A protracted legal battle between the pair ensued, with Mr Busch leaving the park in 2008.
The park's troubles have been long-running, including the death of South African keeper Dalu Mncube, who was mauled by an endangered white tiger in 2009. The cat was put down.
- Herald online and APNZ