TAMPA — For the first time, an elected official is calling for Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury to resign.
City Council member Thomas Scott said Thursday that the almost daily revelations about Salisbury's private dealings with the zoo raise "too many questions" and that he should step down.
Council member Mary Mulhern didn't go that far. But she thinks Salisbury needs to choose between his taxpayer-supported zoo job and his for-profit Polk County exotic animal park, Safari Wild.
Two weeks ago, the city launched an audit of all zoo transactions with Salisbury after learning that Lowry animals had been transferred to his private land.
Meanwhile, reports of the animals shipped to Safari Wild have started to add up: First, there were the horses that needed to stretch their legs. Then the five bison displaced by a log flume ride. Then three rhinos that needed room to breed, in an agreement in which Salisbury would have received half their offspring.
Records also showed animals being transferred to and from Salisbury's home, a 50-acre game ranch in Pasco County. It had been going on for years. He said he'd bought 21 of them.
On Thursday, Larry Killmar, the zoo's director of collections, said Salisbury has engaged in transactions involving 201 animals of 39 different species during his two decades at the zoo. The deals include loans, trades, sales and outright gifts.
Killmar said 153 of the exchanges benefited the zoo. Salisbury housed animals stressed by zoo construction or displaced by space constraints, he said. His animals were used to breed and increase the zoo's collection.
Most of the breeding loan agreements entitled Salisbury to split any offspring with the zoo, Killmar said. Salisbury has said he never profited in any way from his dealings with the zoo.
Salisbury did not return a message from the Times asking if that statement also applied to an African grey parrot, which would typically sell for $1,000, that the zoo donated to him.
Killmar said the bird flew into the zoo and staffers had no luck finding its owners despite placing ads in the newspaper. Because the parrot had no documentation, Killmar said, it would have had no selling value.
So the zoo gave it to Salisbury.
Before Safari Wild existed, the only people approving all transfers of animals to Salisbury were the zoo's general curator and Salisbury himself.
In 2007, two others were brought into the approval process.
Salisbury removed himself and brought in the chairman of the zoo's executive committee, Fassil Gabremariam. That same year, Gabremariam signed on to incorporation papers of the Safari Wild Conservation Fund, an educational arm that Salisbury says is inactive.
Also that year, the zoo hired Killmar to fill a new position: director of collections. He already had served with Salisbury on the board of the Zoological Association of America, an accrediting organization that advocates trading exotic animals with responsible private owners.
Killmar's signature was added to the process.
He said he saw nothing wrong with Salisbury buying animals from the zoo. Twenty-one is just an average of one per year during his tenure at Lowry, he said.
Killmar couldn't immediately provide a number for how many zoo animals died in Salisbury's care over the years. The Times has reported six, based on partial records and statements by Salisbury. Killmar said Salisbury is equipped to give animals good care.
When asked if he had conversations with Salisbury discussing using zoo animals to populate Safari Wild, Killmar said he didn't remember.
Some council members are awaiting results of the audits before coming to conclusions.
Council member Charlie Miranda said he wants to see more oversight from the zoo's board of directors. And council member Linda Saul-Sena is defending Salisbury.
"He is completely committed to the zoo. He took it from nothing to a fantastic, nationally regarded zoo," she said. "I spoke with him about this, and I truly believe he was interested in the welfare of the zoo."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 310-2081.