The future of Natureland is unknown. Photo: Jonty Dine.

Natureland left in limbo

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The Nelson City Council has decided to stick to only offering $170,000 in annual funding for the Natureland Wildlife Trust, leaving the future of the zoo up in the air.

Trust chair Alan Hinton says they are very disappointed by council’s decision.

“The decision is contrary to the recommendation of council staff and is also out of step with the vast majority of public submissions which were overwhelmingly in favour of reinstating last year’s level of council funding support.”

He says that the council’s decision leaves Natureland’s future in limbo, given that council’s current contract with the trust runs out at the end of this month.

The trust were due to hold a board meeting earlier this week to discuss its future.

The council’s decision brings to a close a saga that has spanned more than a year.

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.

However, last May, councillor Matt Lawrey suggested lowering the amount to $170,000. This caused former director of the trust Mike Rutledge, whose wife Meg was then also a director, to have an outburst which led to a letter of censure.

At last week’s meeting, Rutledge, whose wife has since resigned, said the council was funding it “to fail”.

However, councillor Luke Acland said he “strongly objected” to that characterisation or that the council was responsible for the zoo’s operation.

“The trust has chosen to operate, it has chosen to operate in the market, and it has to make sure its operation is sustainable, and it’s not.”

Councillor Stuart Walker said the decision to keep Natureland’s funding at $170,000 would not see the zoo close.

“Nature Wildlife Trust may not be the long-term operators, but I see Natureland itself operating very much as it is now.”

Butterfly Forest Trust has also submitted to the council that it could operate the zoo for $170,000 per year.

Natureland Wildlife Trust has said it was interested in partnering with the Thames-based operation.

Despite this, Alan Hinton says the decision is still a bitter blow for the zoo staff, management, and volunteers who have managed and operated the zoo with dedication and skill over the past five years.

“We want to reassure our staff and volunteers that this decision is not a reflection on their hard work and dedication. We also want to reassure the community that the welfare of the animals in our care and the wellbeing of our loyal team will be central to our decision-making going forward.”