Lowry Park’s CEO, Lex Salisbury Fired

Zoo’s CEO Must Go, Iorio Says




Published: December 13, 2008

TAMPA – Lowry Park Zoo’s embattled president should repay the attraction at least $202,000 for animals and equipment he has taken from the complex, according to preliminary results from a city audit released Friday.

The inquiry revealed that the zoo’s president and chief executive officer, Lex Salisbury, routinely took zoo animals, equipment and supplies for his private ranch and for a separate business venture. It says he overcharged the zoo when selling his animals but paid below market value when he bought.

In one instance, he acquired a used Mercedes safari truck the zoo had recently bought and refurbished. In return, he gave the zoo a used lawnmower and $3,433.

The lack of documentation means Salisbury could owe much more, said Santiago Corrada, the city’s representative on the zoo board.

“There are some serious issues that need to be looked at by law enforcement,” said Corrada, the city’s administrator of neighborhood services. “These issues were systemic in all areas of the zoo.”

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said she thinks the zoo’s board must fire Salisbury when it convenes an emergency meeting next week to review the audit’s findings.

“There has got to be a change in leadership as soon as possible,” she said. “I trust the board will do the right thing.”

As of late Friday, Tampa police said they had not launched an investigation into the zoo’s chief, and the mayor had not asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate, according to FDLE spokeswoman Trena Reddick.

It appears the zoo can terminate Salisbury’s employment without any severance pay.

Salisbury’s letter of employment expired in January 2006.

Along with his salary, Salisbury receives the use of a Range Rover, which cost up to $93,325, and two zoo-paid trips each year for his wife, one domestic and one international.

Iorio launched the audit after The Tampa Tribune reported that Salisbury had taken zoo animals and resources to help build Safari Wild, a private exotic-animal park he co-owns and plans to open in Polk County. The audit confirmed the incidents reported in the Tribune’s investigation and uncovered several others.

The mayor said she was shocked to learn how deeply Salisbury had co-mingled zoo and personal businesses. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Salisbury, the city auditors wrote, “seems unable to differentiate between his role as CEO of the zoo and the role he plays with his business and his ranch and fails to acknowledge the improprieties even after the results of the audit.”

Salisbury often brought his own animals to the zoo for treatment and care, which created added burden for an overtaxed staff, the audit says.

At the same time, Salisbury created a culture in which zoo employees feared they would be fired if they didn’t help with his private Polk County venture. Many were so fearful that they were reluctant to speak with city auditors.

Salisbury, who is on paid leave from the $339,000-a-year zoo job, could not be reached for comment. He has said he never improperly profited from his 21-year connection to the zoo.

When the appearance of conflict of interest began to make headlines, zoo board member Bob Merritt told the Tribune the board had reviewed all transactions with Safari Wild and found nothing improper.

Merritt didn’t respond to messages seeking comment late Friday.

Instead, Merritt, now board chairman, said in a statement that the zoo has already made significant changes to beef up

oversight of the attraction. These include committees to oversee audits, governance and compensation.

“The board is keenly aware that whatever actions we take now must continue to focus on restoring confidence in the integrity of zoo management,” Merritt said in the statement.

The most expensive conflict auditors found involved $150,709 in structures the zoo built on the Safari Wild property. The zoo built a horse barn, monkey cages and a shade structure on the property where Salisbury and his business partner plan to run African-style safari tours for paid visitors.

The work was done as part of a now-voided agreement between Salisbury and board chairman Fassil Gabremariam, who resigned from the board after concerns arose about Salisbury’s dealings.

When the Tribune first reported about the barns, Salisbury said they were meant to be temporary until the zoo could find some land where exhibit animals could get a break from life on display.

The auditors found the buildings to be substantial, with concrete foundations.

“It would be extremely difficult for those structures to be relocated,” said Corrada, the city’s board member.

Many of the issues raised in the audit involve animals, particularly species that could be big draws at Salisbury’s exotic-animal park.

In some cases, the zoo would order animals it didn’t have space for, then ship them to Safari Wild or Salisbury’s ranch in Dade City.

In one such case, Safari Wild joined Lowry Park Zoo and several other attractions during early 2007 to import rare birds. Then Salisbury told the zoo’s director of collections that Safari Wild could not afford its share of the order, which came to $44,975

Since the birds were already shipped and quarantined in Miami, the zoo paid for Safari Wild’s birds. Eleven of the 18 birds went to Safari Wild at no cost to Salisbury.

All told, Salisbury recorded 278 animal transactions with the zoo, many of which raised questions for the auditors.

In April 2004, Salisbury gave the zoo two zebras for a $10,000 credit. One year later, he bought two zebras from the zoo for $2,000.

On the same day, he bought an African antelope known as a bongo for $2,000. Four months later, he gave the zoo a bongo for an $8,500 credit.

When questioned about the animal trading, Salisbury told auditors that the ranges in prices were due to fluctuating values on the open market.

As a result of Salisbury’s animal dealing, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums temporarily revoked the accreditation of the zoo, Salisbury and Larry Killmar, the zoo’s director of collections.

The suspension means Lowry Park can’t borrow animals from other accredited zoos to enhance its exhibits.

The city owns the zoo land and animals. Part of the lease agreement with the Lowry Park Zoological Society stipulates that it meet the zoo association’s standards.

The zoo should take “any and all steps necessary” to restore its accreditation, the audit concludes.

Reporter Josh Poltilove contributed to this report. Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at (813) 259-7668.

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Reader Comments

Posted by ( ad ) on 12/13/2008 at 08:26 am.

The Zoo Board will meet when it gets around to it.If this were a “Moral” issue, the “Christians” of Tampa would be on this and the Church’s would be preaching about it and the guy would be branded and thrashed and gone in a day. But, there is no sexual part of this or any innuendo so far, so it is relatively unimportant. It has to have SEX involved to get them excited enough to do something public. Maybe there is a gay zebra they can bring out.

Posted by ( Dave ) on 12/13/2008 at 08:52 am.

Where was the OVERSIGHT on this ZOO? Who else is robbing the city blind?

Posted by ( Carole ) on 12/13/2008 at 01:05 pm.

I think they would be smart to turn it into a rescue zoo where no breeding is done and the only way animals come in the door is if they have to be rescued. Zoos are an outdated institution and they suffer financially because the public isn’t stupid. Anyone can see how little zoos are really doing for animals in the wild and anyone can see that wild animals don’t belong in cages. Science has brought us out of the dark ages and we now know that animals can experience many of the same kinds of emotions as people can.

Anyone who has a pet can tell you that their pet experiences joy, sadness, hunger, pain and the desire to follow their own will. Thanks to the Internet people can see that they aren’t the only ones who have noticed that.

The City of Tampa has the opportunity before them to take this ugly situation and turn it into something that will set the standard for what zoos should be. Zoos should be acknowledging the fact that a 100 years of doing the same thing, over and over, didn’t work and now we have to make some real strides to save the planet and the species that inhabit it. You can’t teach compassion for animals while taking away everything they have and making props out of them. You can’t save a species by breeding them in captivity. Two exceptions (condors and ferrets) hardly make a rule.

If the City were to become a rescue zoo, people could really get behind their efforts. That could increase support and enable a truly passionate person to use that revenue to do some things in the wild for animals, right here in FL even, that could make us all proud. We only have 8 paid staff running a 45 ac facility with 133 big cats. But we have more than 100 volunteers who clock in the equivalent of 19 full time keepers. We can do that because the public knows we are doing the right thing for the right reasons and they support it. Imagine the support you could get in a volunteer force if they could work with the wide variety of animals at Lowry Park?

As long as Lowry Park doesn’t speak out against zoos, like I do, they could probably get their AZA seal of approval back too.

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue