TAMPA — The three people who approved the most recent animal transfers from Lowry Park Zoo to its president Lex Salisbury 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 is boss to the 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.
Bob Merritt, who is expected to replace Gabremariam as executive committee chairman in October, said he would have brought more people into the decisions.
Merritt says the procedures through which Salisbury bought and was loaned zoo animals "may have been flawed and could have been more rigorous."
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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.) The zoo did not make Rottman available for an interview.
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 which 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.
Killmar chose Salisbury to take the animals because he had the space and he's close by.
Like Salisbury, Killmar feels that partnerships with private facilities are the future of Lowry Park Zoo — and of conservation in America.
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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, though Killmar said they're in its future.
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 who opt not to share their records.
But Killmar, as ZAA chairman, says he trusts them to make good decisions.
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More people should have been made aware of the animal transfers to Salisbury, said Merritt.
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 email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.