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City of Tampa TV showed rhinos' delivery to private zoo

TAMPA — City officials said last month they had no idea Lowry Park Zoo made a deal to transfer three zoo rhinos to Safari Wild, the private animal park owned by Lowry president Lex Salisbury.

Mayor Pam Iorio, in fact, dubbed the deal "Rhinogate," and said she disapproved of any mingling of assets between the taxpayer-funded zoo and Salisbury's for-profit ventures.

But her own city of Tampa televison show, The Mayor's Hour, documented every step of the rhinos' transfer for local viewers.

The April episode shows a 22-ton city Parks and Recreation crane lifting a crate holding a rhino and Salisbury directing it onto the flatbed of a truck.

It shows Salisbury smiling and waving as he drives away with the rhinos. And it shows zoo employees unloading the rhinos when they arrive at the Lowry chief executive's Polk County park.

Zoo officials have said the rhinos were transferred because an exhibit wasn't big enough, and they needed space to breed.

They were transferred to Safari Wild under a now-dissolved loan agreement with the zoo which entitled Salisbury to some of the offspring of two female rhinos and a male being kept at his park.

"Once these two females discovered their freedom, they happily pranced about and grabbed some vegetation to munch on," the behind-the-scenes photo captions on the city's Web site says.

Much has happened since this video aired.

Amid three separate audits and heavy media coverage about possible conflicts of interests in Salisbury's dealings, the zoo acknowledged it had entered into deals for 201 animals with its president, including loans, trades, sales and outright gifts to his private collection.

Salisbury is on a leave of absence while the investigations continue. The former executive committee chairman who approved many of the recent transfers resigned from the board last week.

And Iorio said this: "We really need to look at a little more oversight as to what's going on there."

So was this video a lost opportunity for oversight by the mayor?

"She had nothing to do with it," said Liana Lopez, city director of public affairs. Lopez said the mayor doesn't see her show's footage unless she happens to catch it on television.

Lopez said the mayor wasn't present when the scenes at Safari Wild were shot. The episode featured several aspects of Lowry Park Zoo.

Salisbury didn't answer a message left by the Times.

As for the city crane, Parks and Recreation department spokeswoman Linda Carlo said such a service has been provided to the zoo for years, but that city staff never leaves the zoo's property to follow the animal to its destination.

One oddity: The video containing the rhino transfer is the only Mayor's Hour episode whose link wasn't working Wednesday on the city's Web site.

Lopez thanked a reporter for calling that to her attention.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

City of Tampa TV showed rhinos' delivery to private zoo 10/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 5:42pm]
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