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Fired employee sues Lowry Park Zoo

TAMPA — A former Lowry Park Zoo employee is suing the zoo and the local water district, saying they failed to reimburse him for improvements he made on property used to house endangered animals.

Mark D. Reynolds was hired by the zoo about 3 1/2 years ago to work as a caretaker on 1,320 acres of Central Florida wetlands where the zoo conducts, among other activities, its red wolf captive breeding program, his attorney Joseph Fritz said Tuesday.

The zoo has leased the land from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, since August 1995.

Before Reynolds moved in, he spent $25,000 to refurbish part of a barn that would serve as his living quarters, Fritz said. Per an agreement with the zoo, Reynolds would live there rent-free for five years to recoup his investment.

Fritz said zoo president Lex Salisbury negotiated the arrangement. But two years in, Salisbury fired Reynolds, according to Fritz. The attorney said Reynolds is owed $15,000 for breaking the agreement.

The lawsuit is being filed this week, Fritz said. A copy of it was unavailable Tuesday evening.

Reynolds referred all questions to his attorney.

Salisbury did not return a call for comment. He is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

But the allegations are the latest trouble to touch the zoo and its embattled leader, who is on a paid leave of absence. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has temporarily revoked his membership and suspended the park's accreditation.

The results of a city audit into Salisbury's private transactions with the zoo are expected by week's end.

The barn in question in Reynolds' suit sits on land in the Green Swamp where the zoo conducts its Wilderness Preserve programs, inviting school and community groups to experience an outdoor education experience, according to its Web site.

Swiftmud is named in the suit because the water district stands to benefit from the improvements Reynolds paid for after the zoo's lease runs out, his attorney said.

According to Fritz, the regional water regulator provided Lowry Park Zoo with more than $3,000 to create caretaker quarters. But Fritz claims the zoo kept that money and allowed Reynolds to spend his instead.

"I think it kind of stinks for (Salisbury) to get my guy to put his own money up when they got a grant to do the same thing," Fritz said. "It doesn't pass the smell test."

Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said the water district can't be held liable for this sort of legal action under its leasing agreement with the zoo.

She said Swiftmud provided the zoo with $70,000 in 2001 to pay for a new roof on the barn and to make a bathroom used by visiting groups compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Records show that work was completed using the grant, Felix said.

She saw no record Tuesday of the smaller grant referred to by Fritz.

Reynolds also filed for divorce on Monday. In a brief interview, his wife, Laura Reynolds, blamed the zoo's actions for the unraveling of her marriage.

"It put a big, huge strain on our marriage," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Fired employee sues Lowry Park Zoo 12/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:57pm]

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