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Lowry Park's longtime chief forced to resign

TAMPA

The man who transformed one of the worst zoos in America into the nationally renowned institution that is Lowry Park Zoo resigned Thursday, giving up a fight that roiled the city for months.

Lex Salisbury walked away from a five-hour board of directors meeting, head bowed and silent. He left behind a 21-year career and $339,000 in annual pay, and stepped into a future of fines and the possibility of criminal charges.

In front of a board of his friends, community leaders and government officials, the zoo president fought hard for his job, said those who attended the closed-door meeting.

He gave explanations. He said people make mistakes.

But in the face of a 60-page city audit that concluded Salisbury used zoo animals, materials and employees for his personal enrichment, he lost.

Board chairman Bob Merritt met privately with Salisbury to tell him the directors wanted his resignation. Salisbury obliged.

Of words traded in the few minutes of Salisbury's resignation, Merritt will only say: "It was very emotional, very difficult."

He said Salisbury has not been given a severance.

After a 10-minute conversation with the board chairman, the man who entered the zoo as an ambitious 29-year-old was gone.

Ultimately, it was that ambition that cost Lex Salisbury his job.

• • •

Salisbury didn't only work among animals. He lived with them, accumulating them on his Pasco County ranch. Warthogs and giraffes grazed outside. Skulls graced his walls and a zebra skin adorned his floor.

But Salisbury wanted more. He dreamed up Safari Wild, an animal park in Polk County, where visitors on private tours could view exotic animals as if they were in their natural habitats.

He envisioned an island, filled with patas monkeys. And a moat, to keep them in.

Just one problem. The 15 monkeys could swim. And their escape in April attracted media attention to the zoo president's little-known side project.

Reports began to expose a relationship between the zoo and Safari Wild. The zoo had paid for a pole barn on Salisbury's grounds to hold zoo animals and was paying him to board five zoo bison. Three zoo rhinos were on loan to the president, under an agreement that entitled him to some of their offspring.

The zoo's board chairman, who had approved the relationship, was also listed as a founding officer of an arm of Safari Wild.

Salisbury insisted the relationship between the zoo and his private venture was forged in the best interest of the zoo.

As months passed, and the elusive patas monkeys remained on the loose, the trickle of information about Salisbury's dealings turned into a flood.

The St. Petersburg Times obtained records that showed five zoo animals had been transferred to his Pasco ranch, and some died.

Prompted by that story, Salisbury called the Times and admitted to buying 21 animals from the zoo.

Finally, zoo officials admitted that during Salisbury's career there, he had engaged in transactions involving more than 200 animals with the zoo, buying, loaning, trading and getting some as outright gifts.

He temporarily stepped down. His chairman quit the board. And the Association of Zoos and Aquariums suspended the zoo's accreditation, along with Salisbury's and his director of collections, Larry Killmar, who approved some of the transfers.

In September, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio called for a city audit. On Friday, auditors released their findings: Salisbury had violated travel policies and charged the zoo for a detour to Paris. He had made a handwritten change in paperwork to increase his bonus. He had used salaried employees for his personal work.

"Fundamentally," auditors wrote, "Mr. Salisbury appeared to treat the operation at Lowry Park Zoo, his for-profit venture Safari Wild and his residence ranch as one."

Auditors said he owed the zoo more than $200,000 and suggested a criminal investigation. The mayor called for his firing.

The zoo's board of directors could no longer wait to resolve the situation.

• • •

On Thursday before 10 a.m., five Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies stood guard as board members arrived at Mainsail Suites Hotel and Conference Center.

The board usually meets at the zoo's school, but chairman Merritt said they moved to spare the school's children from the "circus" the media would create.

He would not say how much the zoo spent on the heightened security, which included a press room segregated from a rented conference room.

Iorio had asked that the board meeting be open to the public. But because the zoo is a private, nonprofit corporation, and because its chairman felt dialogue could have been stifled, the meeting remained closed.

Much of what was said and done within the five hours the board met will go unreported.

"It was very intense," Tampa city councilman and board member Charlie Miranda said of the questions members asked of Salisbury. "The board was very upright, very sincere."

Merritt spoke of changes the board made in November, under his new leadership. It set up audit, governance and compensation committees and began an in-depth review of the zoo.

"Everybody in the organization will be looked at," he said. Deputy director Craig Pugh will take over temporarily while the zoo looks nationwide for a permanent replacement.

The auditors will continue to finalize their report with a more specific amount to present Salisbury as his debt to the zoo.

Santiago Corrada, the mayor's representative on the zoo board, said the city will turn audit findings over to law enforcement. And he said city officials are grateful to the board for its decision — that they hope the tarnished reputation of the zoo will be restored.

But this chapter is not over.

The zoo is awaiting a March ruling to determine whether its accreditation will be restored.

And Salisbury is facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for unauthorized land changes at Safari Wild.

They include that 1-acre island surrounded by a moat, where it all got away from him.

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Lowry Park's longtime chief forced to resign 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 4:00pm]

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