TAMPA — Craig Pugh inherited a mess.
The deputy director took over Lowry Park Zoo the day after its president resigned amid scandal. The zoo's board put him in charge temporarily while they conduct a nationwide search for a new president.
How will Pugh repair the zoo's tarnished image?
First, he says, he has to listen: Listen to professional accreditors, who suspended the zoo's seal of approval. Listen to a city audit that described a culture of intimidation under former president Lex Salisbury. Listen to the staff, their questions and needs.
Pugh hasn't fired anyone, including a high-ranking official who signed off on animal transactions between the taxpayer-funded zoo and its president's private venture.
But he has begun to make other changes, using as a checklist the 60-page city audit that spurred Salisbury's resignation.
The audit details his predecessor's missteps, from private transactions with the zoo involving more than 200 animals to charging the zoo for personal expenses.
Salisbury is gone — not seen again at the zoo since his resignation — but the audit's findings remain: Animal record-keeping is lax. So is security. Expenses need to be re-evaluated and reorganized.
Pugh, who hails from the zoo's development department, is expected to respond in writing to all of the audit's recommendations.
"The best management response I could indicate," he said, "is 'Done.' "
He has already complied with at least one audit suggestion: He will not renew the zoo's affiliation with the Zoological Association of America in 2009.
The ZAA, a fledgling organization that encourages "conservation through commerce" in trades between zoos and smaller, for-profit facilities closed to the public, does not employ the same rigorous conservation plans as the more mainstream Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
But Pugh doesn't want to rule out the ZAA as a partner in the future.
"When you're doing work with conservation," he said, "you need everyone's help."
Both Salisbury and Larry Killmar, the zoo's director of collections, were officers on the board of the ZAA when the zoo lost its accreditation with the other association, jeopardizing its land lease with the city.
Accreditors said the zoo, Salisbury and Killmar refused to fully participate in species survival plans and ignored animal transfer policies. Killmar signed off on several transactions in which zoo animals were transferred into Salisbury's personal care.
On the day Salisbury resigned from the zoo, both he and Killmar also resigned from their posts at the ZAA. Pugh said that Killmar's decision to resign was wholly his and that the zoo won't be involved in his mission to regain his own accreditation.
Killmar is still director of collections at the zoo.
But now, all the decisions about where animals go end up on Pugh's desk.
Just days after inheriting his new role, Pugh spent Christmas doing rounds with zookeepers, to understand their needs.
With a new year in sight, he's examining the zoo's budget in the context of today's economy and making sure animal records are timely and well-kept.
The zoo's accreditation may hang in suspension, but Pugh notes that its attendance hasn't faltered.
When he looks outside his office and sees a line at the gate, he feels confident that this year's episode — with all its embarrassments and mistakes — didn't take away the community's support for its zoo.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.