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Incoming Tampa zoo chief says animal transfers probably flawed

TAMPA — The incoming head of Lowry Park Zoo's executive committee says procedures used to sell and loan zoo animals to zoo president Lex Salisbury "may have been flawed and could have been more rigorous."

Bob Merritt, who is expected to take over as executive committee chairman this month, said he would have brought more people into the process under which animals were transferred to Salisbury, and he prefers to see such transfers discontinued.

In response to questions from the Times, he said he believes everyone involved had good intentions, but is concerned about the perceptions the moves raised.

The three people who approved the most recent animal transfers all are either Salisbury's employees or have ties to his private ventures.

Fassil Gabremariam, chairman of the zoo's executive committee, is listed on the incorporating documents of the Safari Wild Conservation Fund, the inactive educational arm of Salisbury's yet-to-open exotic animal park in Polk County. Salisbury supervises two other people who approved animal transfers: zoo curator Lee Ann Rottman and director of collections Larry Killmar.

And like Salisbury, Killmar sits on the board of the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA, a group that rents an office at the zoo and touts itself as "an advocate for the private sector."

Killmar told the Times he sees nothing wrong with Salisbury buying 21 animals from the zoo for his private collection, as long as he followed the appropriate approval system. The transfers don't require approval of the zoo's board.

As the zoo's director of collections, Killmar's job is to decide which animals come to or leave the zoo, and where they go. Often, he said, those decisions are made in consultation with Salisbury.

Killmar insists he would have told his boss "no'' if he felt an animal transfer was inappropriate. He hasn't, he said, because he feels confident sending zoo animals into Salisbury's care, especially since Salisbury has access to the zoo's veterinarian, Dave Murphy. (Salisbury said he pays Murphy as a freelancer to work on his own animals.)

Hired in 2007, Killmar couldn't talk in depth about all 21 zoo animals Salisbury has bought for his private collection. Most of the sales predate him.

But he did approve a now-voided loan agreement that promised Safari Wild some offspring of three zoo rhinos, and transfers to Safari Wild of bison and white-tailed deer displaced by the Gator Falls log flume ride.

Safari Wild collects $600 each month to board the bison, but the deer died soon after they arrived of what Killmar called medical problems caused by the stress of the transfer.

Like Salisbury, Killmar feels that partnerships with private facilities are the future of Lowry Park Zoo — and of conservation in America.

• • •

Private animal owners possess more land than zoos do, Killmar says. And some species are almost all in private hands. If zoos don't trade with them, he says, dwindling captive populations will continue to decline.

That was the primary reason the Zoological Association of America was established — to bridge the gap between private and public animal trade.

Unlike the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the agency that has been the industry accrediting standard for decades, the ZAA is 3 years old, welcomes smaller private facilities not open to the public and has no ethics committee or conservation plans yet.

The ZAA, which has accredited both Safari Wild and Salisbury's 50-acre residence in Pasco County, the BA Ranch, does not require its members to submit animal transactions to an international database.

Such databases, including "studbooks" kept for individual species, are important in keeping track of animal lineage to ensure the preservation of genetics, say a number of zoological experts.

At his ranch, Salisbury has four giraffes and two warthogs that he doesn't keep on studbooks. He says he considers them unnecessary because the animals aren't endangered species. He bought the warthogs from the zoo.

Without any oversight, Salisbury could sell those warthogs to anyone, even substandard facilities, and no one would know. So can any of the other accredited ZAA facilities that opt not to share their records.

But Killmar, as ZAA chairman, says he trusts them to make good decisions.

• • •

More people should have been made aware of the animal transfers to Salisbury, said Merritt. As head of the zoo's executive committee, he is expected to step in as chairman of a small group of officers that has greater oversight of day-to-day operation than the 38-member board of trustees.

In the future, he thinks such transfers should be disclosed to the zoo's full board.

Merritt thinks an examination of Salisbury's transactions with the zoo will show no wrongdoing, but says he still prefers that no deals be made between the two, "because of the potential appearance of impropriety."

"Having said that," Merritt said, "I understand why this stuff happens. And I understand that Lex and the zoo staff felt that they were doing things for the benefit of the zoo."

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

Incoming Tampa zoo chief says animal transfers probably flawed 09/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 11:29am]
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