Lowry Park Zoo officials’ links to ZAA raise questions

TAMPA — The list includes an amusement park in Maine where an elephant plays the harmonica and a breeder in Kansas who sold exotic birds to a pet shop.

There’s a drive-through safari park in North Carolina where zebras can stick their heads into your car. And an animal dealer in Texas that bought a Web domain titled ExoticsLiquidators.com.

None of those facilities are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, known for years as the zoological standard.

But they are accredited by a newer group — the Zoological Association of America.

Its chairman: Larry Killmar, director of collections at Lowry Park Zoo. Its secretary: zoo president Lex Salisbury, who spent the past week answering questions from Tampa officials about dealings between his private, for-profit exotic animal park and the taxpayer-funded zoo.

Its mailing address: an office it rents at Lowry Park Zoo.

Other respected zoos belong to the ZAA, and some state governments recognize the association.

But some argue that the organization, whose mission statement includes “protect and defend the right to own animals,” casts far too wide a net.

Salisbury, who lives at his exotic animal ranch in Dade City, says some people just don’t understand his lifestyle. Why wake up at 6:30 a.m. every day to feed a giraffe?

Salisbury believes that private facilities such as his are the future of animal conservation and can help public zoos deal with space constraints and stretched budgets.

The ZAA exists to let people know that even though some of these facilities aren’t zoos, they’re still reputable and agree to certain standards of animal care, he said.

The association’s Web site lists 46 facilities that have been inspected and received accreditation. Only about a dozen also are accredited by the more mainstream AZA.

The others include everything from exotic animal breeders and import/exporters to private sanctuaries and amusement parks.

Killmar says he doesn’t see a problem with operating an accrediting agency out of a Lowry Park office or with the zoo’s belonging to an organization that acts as a “voice in Washington” for some of those other facilities.

They share a common goal, he said: “It’s about the animals.”

In 2007, the Internal Revenue Service released an investigation into a ZAA-accredited facility in Kansas called El Rancho Exotica.

The IRS said the ranch was a hobby, not a business, and that its owners don’t have professional animal care credentials.

It reported that the owners purchased animals without receiving health information about them, as well as breeds that weren’t used to the Kansas climate and died. Some of their exotic birds ended up in a pet shop.

The investigation included events from 1989 to 2001. When asked whether anything about the facility had changed since her ZAA accreditation, owner Margaret Knudsen said it never had problems to begin with.

Because Kansas recognizes the association’s stamp of approval, she is exempt from restrictions that other exotic animal owners face.

Richard Farinato, a captive wildlife expert with the Humane Society, has served as assistant director of two zoos.

“There’s a world of difference between a professionally run zoo and anything else where people are keeping exotic animals — in attitude, philosophy, approach, management and reason for keeping an animal,” he said.

In most respects, the AZA has tougher standards than its Lowry-based counterpart. It has financial reserve requirements that limit membership mostly to professional zoos and large private facilities. The ZAA accredits smaller, less-endowed organizations.

The AZA requires its members to be open to the public. Salisbury’s exotic animal park, Safari Wild, is not yet open but already is accredited by the ZAA.

The AZA requires that animals moved from an AZA facility go somewhere with high standards of animal welfare. The ZAA’s mission statement includes the same conservation goal.

But a ZAA-accredited facility, Animal Source Texas Inc., which imports and exports exotic animals, bought a Web domain titled ExoticsLiquidators.com that allowed non-accredited breeders to post advertisements.

Some other ZAA-accredited facilities exhibit their animals in ways that are frowned upon by the AZA.

At safari drive-through Lazy 5 Ranch in North Carolina, animals are allowed to put their heads into the car windows of guests. The AZA would view that as a dangerous practice, said spokesman Steven Feldman.

At York’s Wild Kingdom in Maine, guests can ride elephants for $8. The AZA strongly discourages elephant rides for safety reasons and because they detract from the dignity of the animal. The ZAA requires its authorization to permit elephant rides.

Killmar, the ZAA chairman and Lowry’s director of collections, said the 3-year-old accrediting organization has significant standards and that his office will investigate complaints against its facilities, as long as they’re not made anonymously.

Killmar said the ZAA is recognized by legislatures in Kansas, Michigan and California, and is working with Florida.

The goal, Killmar said, is recognition in all 50 states.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

[Last modified: Sep 23, 2008 05:46 PM] Alexandra Zayas, Times Staff Writer