Natureland's new owners move in

The couple heading Natureland's new operation, Mike Rutledge and Meg Selby, donned gumboots and high hopes for the future at their first day on the job on Friday.

Taking on the small zoo represents a huge turning point in the couple's lives.

It it the early realization of a dream for Ms Selby, a zoologist nearing completion of doctorate studies, and for Mr Rutledge who grew up on a Redwood Valley orchard and who was happy to return home from Auckland and a marketing career.

The couple head the Natureland Wildlife Trust which has taken over the operation from the Orana Wildlife Trust.

It has set up a new lease arrangement with the council for the land Natureland occupies, for a term of five years, renewable for three further terms of five years each for an annual rent of $10.

The small zoo has been a Nelson institution since it opened in the 1960s, and in recent years has gone through a series of lifesaving reprieves.

The exit by the Orana trust on Thursday, triggered by financial constraints in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes which affected the parent operation in Christchurch, was marked by a visit from chief executive Lynn Anderson and an afternoon tea for staff.

The Nelson Mail reported earlier this week that most of the staff were to lose their jobs, but Mr Rutledge said that was not the case.

"Of the nine staff that were employed at Natureland only two have not been offered employment within the new operating structure. One staff member chose to take up another opportunity so Natureland has retained six of the current staff with Meg and myself added to the staff," he said.

Mr Rutledge has left his job as Tui brand manager at DB Breweries to help operate Natureland.

"There's more than enough work for me to be doing here. I'll be full time at Natureland. The skills I have developed in the commercial world will stand me in good stead," he said.

Among those staying for now is zoo stalwart Gail Sutton, who has been its operations manager for several years. She had planned to retire the last time the writing was on the wall, but has agreed to stay to help the new operators get on their feet.

"The staff here have an incredibly good skill sets, but Gail we're grateful for. She is so passionate and is the sole reason this place has stayed open all this time," Mr Rutledge said.

They plan to spend the first couple of months assessing the site properly to figure out what will work in the future. They are interested in extending wildlife rehabilitation projects, whereby the public can take injured native wildlife to Natureland for care.

Ms Selby is an American with a background in wildlife rehabilitation and animal care, and has studied at Florida Atlantic University, Yale University and Auckland University on a scholarship.

The pair share strong outdoor interests, and met in Auckland on a rock climbing expedition. They plan to marry in the United States next July.

Ms Selby said she has always been an "animal nerd".

"There's no other way to slice that."

She has worked in different exotic locations around the world, including Madagascar, where she did research on one of her favourite animals, the lemur, during Masters studies at Yale.

Ms Selby also has a special interest in avian species, and has a lot of experience with oceanic birds. She said being in charge of a zoo now was "a bit surreal" but really exciting.

"It was absolutely my life goal to run a small centre and to have an opportunity like this. I just didn't think it would happen so soon," she said.

The pair say they are "absolutely committed" for the long haul, and will be running a number of fundraising ideas for the bigger projects they plan to carry out, such as developing a proper walk-through aviary.

"Some of the birds are in old, small cages and we want to sort that out as a high priority," Mr Rutledge said.

The business model the trust plans to operate will seek input from private individuals and companies to boost city council funding.

A council resolution provides for up to $200,000 in total for capital improvements over the next five years and up to $200,000 a year as an operational grant, for the term of the lease. The grant in the Long Term Plan for 2013-14 is $154,695.

Ms Selby was adamant that education programmes would remain a key part of Natureland's operations. They plan to retain the existing education contract or devise a new one if it cannot be re-negotiated upon its expiry next year.

There also room to collaborate with other similar Nelson organisations, such as the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary.

"What they are doing is fantastic and ultimately we're all about the same thing," Mr Rutledge said.

Natureland will have a key focus on native species, but exotic animals will always have a place there.

"It's important that it stays an accessible place that welcomes all demographics and backgrounds," Ms Selby said.

A $125 annual family pass to Natureland for two adults and three children has been added to the entry options, which provides annual membership to each family individual. Casual entry charges will remain at $10 per adult and $5 per child.