Lowry Park Zoo Director Announces Resignation
TAMPA - For 21 years, Lex Salisbury was the future of Lowry Park Zoo. The often charming and charismatic zoo chief gets credit for turning a meager collection of animals into one of the nation's finest zoos. But on Thursday, even as it praised his contributions, the board Salisbury had largely hand-picked decided he used staff, equipment and animals from the taxpayer-funded zoo to help build his for-profit exotic animal park, Safari Wild. The pasty-skinned man known as "the White Devil" by people who feared and adored him was asked to resign after the board met for nearly five hours at a noisy office park near Tampa International Airport.The warm day turned surreal when Salisbury's wife was cited for leaving two dogs in their dusty Nissan Pathfinder as Salisbury tried to save his job. In a final twist, news broke that the last of 15 missing patas monkeys were recovered at a Polk County sod farm, eight months after their escape from Safari Wild triggered Salisbury's downfall. Salisbury left the building without any severance and without speaking to reporters. He had been on paid leave from his $339,000-a-year job until the release of the audit. "We can tell you, this won't happen again," said board chairman Bob Merritt, referring to the mixing of public and private assets detailed in the audit. Now the board must design a future for the zoo without Salisbury's vision. Here are some of its next steps: *Launch a national search for a replacement. The new leader must review the entire staff to see whether any are tainted from their ties to the former leader. *Continue beefing up accountability and take steps to restore an endorsement it lost this month, from the nation's premier zoo accrediting organization. *Review a final audit from the city of Tampa, which is finishing its review of Lowry Park Zoo's dealings with Salisbury and sending it to law enforcement. *Monitor a request from a Hillsborough County commissioner who asked county staff to see if Salisbury used county dollars for his personal gain. Escape Triggered Questions Salisbury stepped down a week after Mayor Pam Iorio recommended firing him and launching a criminal investigation. Her statement came Dec. 12, after a preliminary city audit found he needs to repay the zoo at least $202,000 in animals and supplies he took. Salisbury's storied zoo career began to unravel in April when the patas monkeys escaped from a manmade island at Safari Wild north of Lakeland and bolted into the wooded landscape of the Green Swamp. Soon Salisbury faced questions about running a private, for-profit exotic animal park that only a few zoo board members knew about. Tampa Tribune investigations found Salisbury used zoo staff and money to promote Safari Wild and erect buildings there, and worked deals with the zoo on more than 200 animals involving Safari Wild and the ranch where he lives in Dade City. Because of the revelations, Polk County planners issued a stop-work order on Safari Wild and Iorio ordered the audit. The city owns the Lowry Park Zoo land and animals and will kick in about $450,000 this year for operations. "All of us were surprised by the breadth of issues and the pattern of behavior," Merritt said in announcing the resignation after Thursday's board meeting. During the closed-door meeting, Salisbury was unable to persuade auditors they had made any major errors in their findings. Reforms Already Begun The zoo already has taken steps to become more accountable. In November, the board created audit, governance and compensation committees. One committee has begun a review of zoo policies and expects to recommend improvements in the next several months. Another committee will review the city's report and decide how much Salisbury needs to reimburse the zoo. The zoo might also hire an in-house attorney to serve as a chief compliance officer, Merritt said. "It was clear that the review and approval process was not as rigorous as it should have been." The zoo also must regain the blessing of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Salisbury's animal bartering cost the zoo, as well as Salisbury and collections director Larry Killmar, their accreditations. The lease with the city requires it. Merritt said he hopes the association restores the zoo accreditation when it meets in March. "The zoo has expressed its intention to work hard to address issues identified by AZA, and we look forward to the results of that hard work," said Steven Feldman, a spokesman for the organization. Official: City Must Share Blame Salisbury's mingling of zoo resources and private ventures prompted Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White to ask county staff to review its agreement that sent millions of county dollars to the zoo in recent years. The county should consider seeking repayment, he said. Salisbury needed to be fired, White added, but the former Tampa City Council member said the city shares some of the blame. "If the city was not a good steward of our money, then shame on them," he said. "I want every dime owed to the county." Former Gov. Bob Martinez, who was Tampa's mayor when the zoo opened at its current site, said the next president and CEO must restore accountability and show savvy as a community leader who can woo donors. The chief must also ease a hostile work environment spelled out in the audit by former zoo workers, said Martinez, a member of the zoo board. Staff members feared they'd be fired if they didn't help or at least keep quiet about Salisbury's dealings, auditors found. Perhaps the enormity of the work ahead will require a separate president and chief executive, several board members said. "But we need both skills," Martinez said. Merritt is open to the idea of splitting the top duties. "In this case, it needs to be debated." One thing many board members and city leaders agreed on: The next chief executive can't be a collector of zoo animals or have ties to exotic-animal ventures. "The national search is definitely a step in a positive direction," said Santiago Corrada, the city's representative on the zoo board.
Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at (813) 259-7668.