It is time for Lex Salisbury to step down as president of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. In two decades there, Salisbury has turned an eyesore into an entertaining and nationally recognized attraction — one that marries an up-front experience with exotic animals with a mission to educate and conserve. But Salisbury has blurred the line between the zoo and personal business beyond any benefit of the doubt.
Each new revelation only further damages a zoo that local taxpayers and philanthropists have dug deep to support. The zoo needs to clean up its operating culture and start fresh with a new chief executive.
The issue is not whether Salisbury turned the zoo around. He has been paid handsomely to do just that. The issue is whether the president of a tax-supported park should be (a) developing a for-profit animal attraction one county over, (b) comingling zoo and personal business and (c) buying animals or taking them from the zoo to live at his private ranch.
It was bad enough the zoo built two barns and housed animals at Salisbury's private park, Safari Wild, in Polk County. Five bison are still there. He also had a side deal to acquire offspring of the zoo's white rhinos. The zoo is housing 10 monkeys that escaped from Safari Wild, and were later caught. St. Petersburg Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas also reported that zoo animals were transferred to Salisbury's 50-acre ranch in Pasco County. Records show that one antelope and one giraffe died, one warthog was transferred to another zoo and another vanished from records. Salisbury told the Times he had purchased 21 animals from the zoo for his private collection and that the sales were approved by zoo officials. As an employee, he should not have been allowed to buy an animal at any price. As a practical matter, there is no such thing as an arm's length transaction between the zoo and its chief executive. Salisbury also said three or four of the zoo's white-tailed deer, displaced by Lowry Park's new water flume ride, died at Safari Wild. Salisbury said he never made a profit from the arrangements and blamed the animals' deaths largely on their health.
But why are we at the point where city auditors are asking whose animals are where? Why do we need to be asking who paid what? Does it really need to be spelled out that zoo animals should remain on zoo property? This is not a case of an employee taking home a company laptop. And beside the point that these animals were displaced so the zoo could build thrill rides — an issue for later discussion — does the zoo's animal displacement plan boil down to: "Truck 'em to the boss' house?"
There have been too many surprises, and they combine to paint a loose management style and a lack of accountability. Salisbury can be proud of where he brought the zoo, but the culture needs to change and that requires a change at the top.