The owner of the big cats at Whangarei's beleaguered Zion Wildlife Gardens will be decided by the High Court
Lion Man Craig Busch and his mother Patricia each argue the 37 big cats belong to them, but since the park went into receivership in August, the High Court has allowed her to look after the animals.
Mrs Busch's lawyer, Evgeny Orlov, said her argument was the animals could not be owned or sold by the park's receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, under the Wildlife Convention.
He said a High Court hearing in February would arguably be the first such case in the country where courts have been asked to decide on the ownership of wild animals.
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"They [the receivers] have held the animals as security over the park but they can't sell them [under the convention], because they are wildlife animals,'' Mr Orlov said.
The case was called for a telephone case conference in the High Court at Whangarei on Monday, when all parties agreed to a hearing in February.
A day after the receivers took over the park in August, Mr Busch offered to buy back Zion or take the big cats to another location. But his mother said that was not possible because of the dispute over their ownership.
He claimed the animals belonged to his Busch Wildlife Foundation. Mrs Busch says Zion has the care and control of the animals.
Receiver Colin McCloy said the receivers remained focused on dealing with the receivership in accordance with their obligations under the Receiverships Act.
Asked how far away the receivers were from concluding a deal, Mr McCloy said he was unable to give a definite answer.