Iorio says zoo didn't keep city informed

TAMPA — Mayor Pam Iorio expects to talk today with Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury about the blurred lines between the nonprofit zoo and Salisbury's private, for-profit exotic animal park.

Iorio's beef: The zoo's decision to transfer some of its animals to Salisbury's Safari Wild within the past year without letting the city know.

Until recent news reports, she didn't know that Safari Wild gave the zoo 10 acres to allow its horses to graze.

Or that the zoo's bison, displaced by the new Gator Falls water flume, are temporarily roaming Safari Wild.

Or that three of the zoo's white rhinos at one point lived at Safari Wild, under a loan deal that would have granted the private park some of the animals' offspring.

Iorio should have known, because she says the animals belong to the city. Salisbury says they don't.

A 1988 city lease that granted the zoo its land for $100 a year states that zoo animals are "assets of the city," and requires the zoo to give the city an annual inventory of what it does with its animals.

Iorio said the zoo hasn't done that.

"We really need to look at a little more oversight as to what's going on there," she said. "We'll be asking a lot of questions."

Most of the zoo's $20-million budget is privately generated, but it is supplemented by taxpayer money. Last year, the city gave the zoo $450,000, and the county gave $2.2-million.

The zoo is paying Safari Wild $600 each month to house its bison, until the zoo finds them a permanent home. Salisbury says that price is highly discounted, and that someone else would charge more than $100 each day.

The zoo paid to build a horse barn and a pen to hold birds and small primates at Safari Wild, but zoo officials say they were only temporary structures, to accommodate an animal collection growing too big for zoo land.

Salisbury said he hasn't calculated how much the structures are worth. "Not a whole lot," he said.

And Safari Wild would have received the second-born calves of two pregnant zoo rhinos the zoo loaned the private park under a memorandum of understanding that was later dissolved.

An adult male rhino and two females needed to be separated from the others because the zoo exhibit wasn't big enough to hold them, said Dr. Larry Killmar, the zoo's director of collections.

Killmar said he looked into different Florida locations, and that Safari Wild was the most convenient to house the rhinos.

After the zoo's executive board severed the partnership between the zoo and Safari Wild, two of the rhinos were transported to a private park in California, and another was returned to the zoo.

Salisbury said he didn't enter into an agreement just to acquire a baby rhino. It would have cost more than $200,000 to feed the pregnant rhinos until they gave birth, but he could buy a baby rhino right now for $2,500.

He says he hasn't benefited financially from a relationship between Safari Wild and the zoo, and was only doing the zoo a favor by offering his private resources.

In hindsight, he created a "perception problem" which has led people to believe conflicts of interest influenced the partnership, he said.

County Administrator Pat Bean wants to see an audit of any transactions between the zoo and Safari Wild. And the mayor wants the zoo to take back any money it spent there.

"I should've had better political instincts," Salisbury said. "But I'm not a political person."

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

Iorio says zoo didn't keep city informed 09/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 9:09pm]

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