TAMPA — Lex Salisbury, the embattled president of Lowry Park Zoo, will take a leave of absence until inquiries into his private dealings with the zoo are complete, Lowry officials said Friday.
"I'm not certain it was a necessary move, but it was in the best interests of Lex and the organization,'' said Bob Merritt, a member of the zoo's executive committee.
Salisbury, the zoo's president and CEO since 1994, agreed to step down temporarily after a lengthy meeting Thursday with committee members.
He did not return a call Friday night seeking comments. Neither did Fassil Gabremariam, chairman of the taxpayer-supported zoo's board of directors.
Craig Pugh, the zoo's deputy director, and Larry Killmar, its director of collections, will assume Salisbury's leadership duties temporarily, zoo officials said.
"He needs a break from the day-to-day operations, and we need to get through the audit," Merritt said.
The leave comes after weeks of news reports about apparent conflicts between Salisbury's duties as zoo director and his for-profit exotic animal park, Safari Wild in Polk County.
The zoo and city officials are now doing separate audits of the zoo's transactions with Safari Wild and Salisbury's 50-acre Pasco County ranch — dealings that included numerous transfers of animals back and forth. It is unclear when the audits will be finished, or what action they might spur.
The city is involved because it helps subsidize the zoo and because it holds the lease on the zoo's property, which gives it ownership of all of its animals and their offspring.
That's why city officials have found revelations about the zoo's dealings with Salisbury's private ventures so troubling.
Zoo officials said this week that Salisbury has engaged in transactions involving 201 animals of 39 different species during his two decades at the zoo. The deals include loans, trades, sales and outright gifts.
Killmar, Lowry's director of collections, said 153 of the exchanges benefited the zoo. Salisbury housed animals stressed by zoo construction or displaced by space constraints, he said. His animals were used to breed and increase the zoo's collection.
Most of the breeding loan agreements entitled Salisbury to split any offspring with the zoo, Killmar said.
Not all of the transactions ended well.
In 2007, the zoo loaned Salisbury a giraffe and four white-tailed deer, all of which died. He also received three dwarf buffalo, an antelope and five bison.
In that same stretch of time — from Oct. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30, 2007 — the zoo traded pygmy hippos with Safari Wild and received animals on loan from Salisbury, including an Arabian camel, a saddle-billed stork and a sarus crane.
Salisbury has said he never profited in any way from his dealings with the zoo. But City Council member Thomas Scott has called for his resignation, and council member Mary Mulhern said he needs to choose between his $270,000-a-year post at the zoo and his private ventures.
For now, Salisbury will step back and let the independent reviewers do their job.
"When the auditors have satisfied their investigation and made their judgments, we'll figure out where to go from there," Merritt said. "There is no timetable."
Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas and Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.