I really like our zoo.
I can say this without fear of being ridiculed for what sounds suspiciously like civic pride: Our Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa has that same thing we have going with our beaches, our Fort De Soto Park, our airport that out-of-towners are always raving about.
They are places that define us beyond sports teams and strip clubs and politicians who embarrass us. If you ask me, nothing softens a story about the latest lunacy out of Florida like a newspaper picture of a pack of potbellied meerkats.
Those of us who watched the zoo morph from its sad former self into this sprawling natural habitat for more than 2,000 animals can claim a particular pride — sort of like buying a house with a scraggly sand-pit of a yard that is one day transformed into a tropical oasis.
Taxpayers help support the nonprofit zoo, which sits on city land it leases for $100 a year. Sweet deal, no? Like the beaches and Fort De Soto, it's ours to be proud of.
The exact definition of "ours" having become a point of contention of late. Contention, at our zoo. Say it ain't so.
Controversy has reared its head over zoo president Lex Salisbury and the for-profit exotic animal safari park he's opening in Polk County. His venture made news in the spring when a bunch of enterprising monkeys swam a moat and beat it. Just like monkeys to stir up trouble — or at least questions of a conflict of interest.
Turns out the zoo built two animal-holding structures at Salisbury's 258-acre Safari Wild. The zoo got 10 acres at Safari Wild for animals to roam. A deal involving the zoo's white rhinos housed at Safari Wild would have given the private park rhino offspring.
Zoo officials actually quibbled over whether the city owns the animals, as the lease states.
You want more?
The Times' Alexandra Zayas reports that an accreditation group called the Zoological Association of America (not to be confused with the industry standard Association of Zoos and Aquariums) is headed by Lowry Park's own collections director, with Salisbury as secretary and the mailing address a rented office at the zoo.
Those trouble-making monkeys from Safari Wild? The recaptured ones are being housed at —you guessed it — the zoo.
How about oversight, you say? Isn't somebody in charge of making sure the cages are locked and the bunnies separate from the tigers, so to speak?
Members of the larger zoo board, which includes representatives from local government, weren't privy to all that was going on between the zoo and Safari Wild.
Now it's time to make like those guys who clean up after the elephants.
The zoo has agreed to put Mayor Pam Iorio's representative on its powerful decisionmaking executive committee. Salisbury has said the relationship between Safari Wild and the zoo is done — though more questions were raised this week about animals moved to his private ranch. A city audit is under way to scrutinize any blurring of lines — from inventory to business relationships and beyond.
Fix our zoo.
We want the news from Lowry Park to be about record attendance and new exhibits and progressive conservation and, of course, cute baby animals. Clean up this controversy. Not at our zoo.