TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo's questionable deals with its animal-collecting president have jeopardized its seal of approval from the prestigious Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The zoo's leadership learned this week the AZA has suspended the park's accreditation.
The suspension is temporary, and the zoo will address the association's concerns, zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said.
The decision was based on an initial review of zoo procedures for acquiring or transferring animals.
President Lex Salisbury, now on a leave of absence, requested the AZA review after questions arose about 201 trades, sales, loans and gifts of animals between him and the zoo.
Visitors to the zoo should not see any changes as a result of the suspension, zoo and city officials said Friday.
"I don't get the sense that the public would see any difference in the management or the operation," said Santiago Corrada, Tampa's neighborhood services administrator.
But the city's lease and operating agreement with the zoo require the zoo to abide by the standards of the accrediting agency. So any problems identified by the association must be rectified, he said.
Corrada, a city staffer who sits on the zoo board, said board chairman Bob Merritt told him the accreditation was "subject to reinstatement in March" by the AZA's full board.
Merritt, who did not return calls for comment, also told Corrada the decision was based, at least in part, on the zoo's failure to:
• Comply with proper procedures for acquiring and disposing of animals.
• Abide by the rules of the AZA's Species Survival Plan program. The association created the program to help ensure that selected species of wildlife survive through a coordinated program of breeding, research and transfers between institutions.
Lowry Park Zoo has more than 40 species of animals in the survival program, including chimpanzees, elephants, cheetahs and rhinoceroses.
The zoo made a deal to transfer three rhinos to Safari Wild, Salisbury's private, for-profit animal park in Polk County. A now-dissolved loan agreement would have entitled Salisbury to keep some of the rhinos' offspring.
Salisbury could not be reached for comments.
His private dealings with the zoo drew scrutiny after reports began to surface about decisions Lowry officials made to build holding pens at Safari Wild and send animals there.
An AZA spokesman did not return calls for comment, but the organization's Web site — www.aza.org — no longer lists Lowry Park Zoo as an accredited member. It does list 19 other members in Florida, including Busch Gardens and the Florida Aquarium.
Founded in 1924 and based in Maryland, the nonprofit AZA describes itself as the nation's leading accrediting organization for zoos and aquariums.
The organization's Web site says it "accredits only those institutions that have achieved rigorous standards for animal care, education, wildlife conservation and science." Its 200-plus members represent less than 10 percent of the 2,400 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Among other things, the AZA's policies say its members should place a priority on working with other accredited zoos when acquiring or disposing of animals.
Before this week, Lowry Park Zoo had been an AZA member in good standing since 1989. Its accreditation was renewed most recently in 2004 after what Nelson described as a "rigorous inspection."
The zoo's leadership and board will review the AZA's findings once they are complete and decide whether to change any policies, she said. In the meantime, Nelson said, the suspension "will have no impact on day-to-day operations."
"The visitor's experience will not change," Nelson said in an e-mail to the Times. "We are proud to uphold the highest standards of animal welfare and care, and we are in full compliance with the agencies that regulate our industry (USDA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)."
Asked whether the zoo would lose any animals or have trouble acquiring animals because of the suspension, Nelson said: "Generally in a temporary suspension, the animal population is not affected."
The AZA is not the only organization scrutinizing Salisbury's work at Safari Wild.
On Wednesday, the Southwest Florida Water Management District hit Salisbury with a $46,036 fine for excavating ponds and dredging at the park without the proper permits.
Safari Wild owners will get a chance to negotiate that fine.
Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.