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Integrity questions tarnish legacy of Lowry Park Zoo

Back when I first came to Tampa, the city's zoo was a sight to break your heart.

Animals paced restlessly in old-style cages. Carnival rides that once charmed children went empty. The place had an air of peeling paint and decay. A national Humane Society official took a tour and pronounced it one of the 10 worst zoos in America.

All of which is hard to believe, if you've wandered down the lush and shady paths of its current 56-acre incarnation, or jostled for a spot to watch waddling penguins or hyper-alert meerkats. But things were once that bad at Lowry Park Zoo.

So the city and the private sector got busy on a fix, and 20 years ago, the Lowry Park Zoo reopened.

The place was utterly transformed from a dismal small-city zoo into an all-out sprawling zoological garden of natural habitats, flowing waters and big plans for the future.

Monkeys frolicked on their own islands. A jaguar walked in open air with grass under its paws instead of concrete. A manatee hospital soon started taking in the injured.

It looked to be a public-private effort that worked, a place to be proud of. A top official with a national group that accredits zoos called Lowry Park "one of the very best zoological parks of its size anywhere in the country."

Lex Salisbury has been there from the beginning of this transformation. For all the new zoo has become under his watch, he deserves props and maybe even a cut of its legacy.

But something is wrong at the zoo.

In recent months, troubling questions of conflict have been raised regarding animal trades, loans, sales and gifts involving Salisbury's plans for a for-profit animal safari park in Polk County as well as his own ranch in Pasco County.

(Adding insult to injury —not to mention more questions about judgment — Salisbury was accused of excavating ponds and dredging at his safari park property without proper permits, and was hit with a $46,036 fine last week.)

Salisbury says he never profited from the zoo.

But the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has temporarily suspended the zoo's accreditation.

Ditto the AZA membership of Salisbury, the zoo's executive director.

This is the latest in not-good news. The AZA is auditing. So is the city. Salisbury is on paid leave.

So what will all this do to the zoo?

The best possible answer is it will do nothing permanent or unfixable, if officials move swiftly to correct what's gone wrong, to dissipate the cloud and restore confidence. Change at the top would be a good start.

This bears repeating: Before these latest revelations, Lowry Park under Salisbury had been a success and a point of local pride. He has for years seemed to have the zoo's best interest at heart.

You hope he still does.

Zoo-related debate around here should be about conservation efforts and animal rights. Maybe it should be about what constitutes "affordable" admission for struggling families in the current economy, or whether rides like the recently added log flume really belong in a zoo. Whether there couldn't be better restaurants at the zoo, even.

We can debate philosophy and direction. We can talk about what's next for the zoo.

But not its integrity. That one was too long coming.

Integrity questions tarnish legacy of Lowry Park Zoo 12/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 9:58pm]
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