Janette Vallance is confident of reopening the park under a new company in the next few weeks.
Photo / Michael Cunningham
The Inland Revenue Department applied to the High Court to liquidate Big Cats Limited, which runs Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary, over significant tax debt that has been blamed on a wet summer that kept people away
from the park.
Liquidators this week terminated the roles of all 12 staff, including Big Cats’ director and operator Janette Vallance, at the Kamo-based park but there’s a possibility some of them will be hired by a new company formed to run the operations.
It’s the second time IRD has liquidated a company that runs the park. The first was in mid-2011 when the government agency applied to liquidate Zion Wildlife Gardens, which ran the park at the time, over a debt of $105,766 while the company was already in receivership.
“It has been a tough day, it has been a tough week. This has been going on for quite a few months, back and forth, we’ve tried to get extensions to deal with this trustee tax debt,” Vallance said in an exclusive interview with the Advocate.
“But we’ve had the most horrendous February, like everybody else. We got flooded end of October, and again in November. December was okay up until that Christmas/New Year break which was really good, and then February hit. The cash flow is not there.”
She said Big Cats did not have a lot of assets but whatever got sold by the liquidators would cover the initial debt. The amount owed to IRD was confidential, she said.
The liquidators have been good though, she said, and would not do anything that could put the welfare of the big cats in jeopardy.
Vallance had payment plans to the IRD in place but said she has had to default on them and rejig them all the time because, from mid-October, everything turned pear-shaped weatherwise.
If Big Cats was given another month, she said its tax bill would have been sorted.
Liquidation means Big Cats no longer exists.
“We have some interim funding from Bolton Equities, we’ve set up another company to operate, not open, but to operate. It will employ new staff, it will just deal with the immediate needs of the cats. That’s the priority.”
Bolton Equities owns the land and buildings and had spent nearly $12 million over the past eight years getting the park up to the standards required by the Ministry of Primary Industries.
“I want the park to be the place these sorts of animals can go to, rather than face euthanasia because someone has decided that financially the park is not viable, or the cats are too old, or for whatever reason, they put on it. Because I don’t believe that’s a reason for euthanasia.”
Vallance is confident the new company is just weeks away from opening but admits some things will have to change for the long-term survival of the business. It all comes down to capital injection.
“Looking at it now to what we’re thinking we’ll do ahead, we won’t be open every day, we’ll focus on those busy weekends, specific bookings, reduced staff and we need to be better prepared for absolute crap weather.
“Start from scratch, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We had an operational grant and other costs covered by Bolton, and they’ve paid us more than our original agreement. I can’t speak highly enough of Bolton Equities. They could have pulled the pin ages ago.”
The park needed about $9000 a week to cover all its expenses. There’s plenty of food for the animals.
“The food itself is free. It’s the labour and the fuel. Three cows a week to feed them all. Running a zoo is incredibly expensive, it doesn’t matter how you do it, because the labour cost is always there, even if your food is free. Our fuel bill has doubled in the last 18 months,” Vallance said.
She has meetings next week with two possible investors/co-shareholders/partners — people who are interested in putting some money into the business.
Her message to those who have booked tours was not to panic.
“We’ll honour those, we just need to get ourselves open again. We are talking weeks, not months. I am not going anywhere, I am not defeated. We’re not gone.”
Overseas tourists and twilight tours were just starting to pick up, she said, and the park is about to launch an overnight stay option.