TAMPA — Nothing draws people to zoos like cute baby animals. And the birth of two white Bengal tigers at Lowry Park Zoo this fall was no exception.
Who couldn't smile as the two tiny cubs felt their way around the zoo's Asia exhibit?
But few people remember their siblings — an equally cuddly pair of white Bengal tigers born at the zoo last year.
Several months ago, Lowry officials shipped those tigers to a facility in Kansas that is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and whose owner's past dealings in the exotic animal trade are questionable.
The man responsible for that decision: embattled Lowry president Lex Salisbury. This morning, Salisbury will try to keep his $339,000-a-year job when he appears before the zoo's board of directors to answer questions about a critical city audit.
The 60-page audit says Salisbury took zoo animals and materials to both Safari Wild, his yet-to-open Polk County exotic animal park, and his residential game ranch in Pasco County. It says he used salaried zoo employees for personal work.
Auditors say he owes the zoo at least $200,000. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wants him fired.
But the audit also raises questions about the philosophy behind the animal-keeping decisions that has helped put Salisbury in hot water.
Which leads back to what happened to the zoo's white tiger cubs.
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Lowry officials declined to provide an expert to answer questions for this story. Jim Fouts, director of the Kansas facility that received Lowry's two tiger cubs this summer, did not respond to an interview request.
Zoo animal transfer records indicate the zoo sent the two 1-year-old white tigers to Tanganyika Wildlife Park near Wichita this summer, around the time their mother tiger became pregnant with her second litter.
The male was sent as a trade, which entitles Lowry to an animal of equal value. The female was sent on loan, which under a typical agreement would entitle the Kansas park to half of her offspring.
Tanganyika Wildlife Park is not accredited by the AZA, the agency that accredits Lowry and most major zoos in the United States. Instead, it has a seal of approval from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which its owner Fouts helped form in 2005.
Unlike the mainstream organization, the ZAA admits smaller private facilities not open to the public and has no ethics committee and no conservation plans. It doesn't require facilities to keep animals in databases, which keep track of their genetics and verify their locations after transfers.
Fouts is vice chairman of the ZAA. Larry Killmar, Lowry's director of collections, is chairman. Salisbury is secretary.
Before Tanganyika was a wildlife park, it was a home to one of the country's largest exotic animal breeding and importing businesses.
In 1990, 60 Minutes featured Fouts in a report that exposed the dark side of what happens to surplus zoo animals when they're purchased by private dealers and sold blindly at auctions. Some end up being hunted for sport.
Fouts later admitted selling four endangered addax antelope he received from the San Diego Zoo at an auction. Embarrassed, the zoo vowed never to do business with him again. He also sold a giraffe to Michael Jackson.
His business plan changed in the 1990s, after new government regulations made it more difficult for him to do business. So he focused on breeding animals of his own.
Later, he allowed members of the public to see his animals by appointment.
And this summer, four days after Lowry Park Zoo sent him the two white tigers, he opened Tanganyika Wildlife Park for public admission.
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The practice of breeding white Bengal tigers in captivity is controversial in the eyes of the mainstream zoo world.
Conservationists don't see value in breeding them. Their white coats are simply a rare mutation that exhibitors continue to produce because the tigers are visually appealing, says Richard Farinato, the Humane Society's director of captive wildlife programs.
"It's a commercial draw," he said. "It has zip to do with conservation."
Almost all of the white tigers in the United States can trace their ancestry to one tiger shipped from India in the 1950s and inbred with its daughter, writes Ronald Tilson, the director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo who manages the species survival plan of all AZA tigers.
So the genetic pool for white tigers is very small, which leads tigers to develop health problems, like crossed eyes and bad hips.
"We've never had them," said Satch Krantz, executive director of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in South Carolina. "I'd like to say we never will."
AZA tiger expert Norah Fletchall says the accrediting organization would not advocate Lowry Park Zoo's breeding of the tigers, especially if they're taking up space that could be occupied by more valuable species.
Other kinds of tigers, like the endangered Sumatran tiger, are bred to contribute to a genetic pool for their relatives in the wild.
Eric, a Sumatran tiger once housed at Lowry, is now on loan at another zoo.
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The AZA has not released the reports in which officials state the reasons for its recent suspension of Lowry Park's accreditation, and those of Salisbury and Killmar.
But on its Web site, the AZA states that Lowry didn't abide by animal transfer policies and refused to participate fully in the association's species survival plans.
The city of Tampa, in the lease of its land to the zoo, requires it to be accredited by the association and follow all of its guidelines.
The AZA is expected to reconvene in March, to vote on whether to reinstate the zoo. Salisbury may not be employed when that happens.
As zoo board members vote today on what to do about their president, the eyes of the zoo world are on Tampa.
Said Satch Krantz, president of the South Carolina zoo: "Much of what we're reading — certainly in that audit — is unprecedented in our profession."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.