Natureland is at a crossroads as council asks the public what it wants to do. Photo: Jonty Dine.

What is going on with Natureland?

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Six years ago, when the Natureland Wildlife Trust took over an aisling zoo in Tahunanui, the place was run down and in dire need of an overhaul and some fresh energy.

It got that in the form of Meg and Mike Rutledge. They knew that it was clear that things needed to change.

But how much change has been the cause of constant drama around the Nelson City Council table over the past year. For years, that drama revolved around a central question – should council be in the business of running a zoo?

The charitable trust, until last week led by Meg Rutledge, was full of ambition. Under her watch Natureland’s gambit expanded far beyond what many might think of an ordinary zoo. Even an independent report into its activities suggested that traditional zoos were on the way out. What was more acceptable was a facility with a strong conservation focus.

Indeed, that is what the Natureland Trust set out to do. It wanted to create a “world-class conservation organisation” as per its trust deed.

But when the council signed on to fund its activities – $200,000 a year for operations and $119,000 for capital works – it did not necessarily share that view. Then Natureland was awarded $248,000 for the last financial year after an audit showed that it needed another keeper for health and safety reasons. Then it wanted that amount to remain for the next five years, while also receiving a capital grant of $50,000.

That’s when the issues came to a head.

“It is noted that Natureland Wildlife Trust has developed its strategic plan without the input of council as its major funder,” an independent report prepared by Hammond Robertson says.

Because council’s priorities are somewhat different, if not totally clear. At the very least, it wanted Natureland to focus on its city zoo and educational functions, rather than conservation.

The report suggested that Natureland should focus more on creating interactive educational facilities as well as scoping potential commercial opportunities, such as through a café.

Then council followed suit suggesting a figure of $248,000 for the 2018-2019 financial year, then $170,000 for the following nine years.

Councillor Mike Rutledge, Meg’s husband, flew off the handle, abusing fellow councillors and then faced a code of conduct complaint.

Then the trust’s chair Alan Hinton suggested that the trust not renew its contract with council and would dissolve if they didn’t get their funding. However, its last annual report shows it made a $79,000 surplus with $175,000 in the bank – a figure that Alan disputes saying there is no surplus and it forecasts to lose $14,000 annually for the next three years.

Then Meg Rutledge resigned, only on Monday being replaced by international zoological adviser Grant Abel.

Alan says the difficulty comes down to the service contract with council which lays out what Natureland can provide for the funding. If it doesn’t get the funding he says it can’t fulfil the contract.

In an ideal world, a wealthy conservation-minded philanthropist would come in and give Natureland all the money it wanted to expand the way it sees fit. But this is the issue when you rely on ratepayer funding – there is a lot of competition for money and councillors have to weigh up what they see as the city’s own ambitions with the amount in the pot.

Councillor Matt Lawrey said when he read the public submissions on the funding as part of the Long Term Plan, he got the impression that “there wasn’t public support for the level of funding requested”.

But after all the drama, council will again go to the public to see what they want to do – keep the funding as it was decided or go back to what Natureland wanted. There is also an option to close Natureland or offer it for tender for someone else to run.

It is a turning point for several reasons. For example, the Hamilton Zoo operated for 13 years until 1982 when financial pressures threated to force its closure. Intense community opposition to closing the zoo caused the council to take the zoo over. Since then, the zoo has been 100 per cent funded by rates, totalling about $1.5 million in direct costs and another $1 million in indirect overheads. In contrast, Auckland Zoo only relies on 10 per cent of its revenue from council.

In 2015, then councillor Pete Rainey suggested: “In the real world of funding if you get granted less, you have to come up with a plan.”

So what is the plan? Does Nelson want to own a zoo?

If yes, then the public should say so and give Natureland whatever it says it needs. If not, then the trust just needs to shift its ambitions to be more aligned with the people that fund it – the ratepayers.