TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury says he has purchased 21 animals from the zoo for his private collection.
He sees no conflict of interest in the sales, he told the St. Petersburg Times, because they were all approved by high-ranking zoo officials.
Salisbury also acknowledges that some zoo animals boarded at his private ranch in Pasco County died while there, including a giraffe he says came to him with parasites and a male bongo antelope who got in a fight.
Three or four of the zoo's white-tailed deer, displaced by Lowry's new Gator Falls log flume ride, died at his yet-to-open exotic animal attraction, Safari Wild.
He says the deer had medical problems.
"We were a little perplexed by it," Salisbury says. "These things happen sometimes."
Tampa city officials made it clear this month that they do not approve of any transactions between the taxpayer-funded zoo and Salisbury's private ventures.
Salisbury says he'll cut the ties but doesn't think he did anything wrong.
Mark Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, thinks otherwise.
"If I was in his shoes," he said, "I wouldn't have my job right now."
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When Salisbury, 50, signed on as curator of Lowry Park Zoo two decades ago, a three-legged bear was on display and the security guard smoked with the chimp. The budget was $200,000.
Now, the budget is $20-million, mostly raised within. The zoo is accredited and home to 2,000 animals. Many attribute that growth to Salisbury's leadership as the zoo's president.
Salisbury says his leadership wouldn't have been possible without his passion for exotic animals. But some people find that controversial.
Some don't understand why he keeps giraffes on his property. Why he uses animal skulls as decoration. Why when his zebra died, he had it made it into a rug.
"It's an education thing," he says. "It's a shame to take a beautiful animal like that and just bury it."
Some also wonder why he's launching an exotic animal attraction in Polk County and question whether it was appropriate for Salisbury to have personal business with the zoo.
Safari Wild is getting $600 per month from the zoo to board its bison. Salisbury also gave the zoo 10 acres for grazing, and the zoo built structures there to house animals. And he entered into a now-voided loan agreement that would have entitled him to some offspring of zoo rhinos.
The focus of his private dealings with the zoo shifted to his residence after a Times story this week cited records showing that animals had been transferred from the zoo to his ranch.
Some were boarded temporarily, Salisbury says. One was on loan, and some were purchased at market value, including two warthogs that remain at his home today, he says.
Other zoo animals he has purchased: a horse, a bongo, nine waterbucks, three cows and five ostrich.
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Zoo directors across the country have been reading about the relationships between the zoo and Salisbury's private operations.
One of them is Satch Krantz, director of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in South Carolina.
"People like me are scratching their heads, mostly," Krantz says. "How could this happen? How could reasonably intelligent people like Lex and his board think this was a good idea?"
Krantz, who is also a former chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said Salisbury's situation is unprecedented. He can't remember another zoo president who has tried to open a private animal attraction.
Sedgwick County Zoo's Mark Reed said his board wouldn't have allowed him to set up a commercial operation that could possibly compete with the zoo.
"My board and my colleagues are just shocked that he's been able to do this," Reed said.
Reed tells his employees that the best kinds of pets to keep are dogs and cats. "The whole issue of conflict of interest is a very thin line," he says.
In hindsight, Salisbury calls Safari Wild's partnership with the zoo "a blunder." But he said he finds nothing wrong with buying zoo animals. He says he has never made a profit, and that in all cases, he was helping the zoo.
The city of Tampa and the zoo are completing separate audits of Salisbury's private transactions with the zoo. Salisbury thinks the audit will reveal he didn't break any rules.
"I'm not worried," he says.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.