Florida's state-owned lands already are coping with pythons, monkeys and walking catfish. So how about adding some rhinos, a few giraffes, maybe even some elephants?
A pair of bills being pushed through the Legislature by the Florida Association of Zoos and Aquariums would allow the association's 16 members — including Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa — to lease state-owned land for "conducting enhanced research" on "selected populations of ungulate and avian species."
An ungulate is an animal with hooves, notes a House committee analysis of CS/HB 1117, listing as examples "zebras, donkeys, cattle/bison, rhinoceroses, camels, hippos, tapirs, goats, pigs, sheep, giraffes, okapis, moose, elk, deer, antelopes, and gazelles."
"We're not going to put primates out there, and we're not going to put cats out there," said Larry Killmar, who is both president of the association and vice president of the Lowry Park Zoo. "We know those are hot-button species. But we could put antelopes, rhinos, giraffes out there — even elephants, if necessary."
The state Department of Environmental Protection and the five water management districts already lease land to ranchers to graze cattle. Killmar said that's the land the zoos are interested in using, not the pristine forests, beaches and swamps. No other state in the nation has approved such a plan to help its zoos, Killmar said. "This will put Florida on the map as far as being progressive on conservation."
But to former Southwest Florida Water Management District director E.W. "Sonny" Vergara, the thinking behind CS/HB 1117 and its Senate companion, SB 1456, can be summed up by two words: "truly boneheaded."
Laurie MacDonald of Defenders of Wildlife calls the proposal "the Jurassic Park bill" because of what could happen if some of the zoo animals get loose. "It's possible these nonnative wildlife species could cause damage that would be economically and environmentally costly," she said.
Killmar insisted that the impact would be no worse than what's caused by cattle grazing on state land. "It's not going to destroy habitat," he said.
But Mary Barnwell, who for 17 years oversaw the management of state lands for the agency commonly known as Swiftmud, said exotic animals can introduce nonnative disease and parasites. She said they would also displace the native wildlife, such as causing the collapse of gopher tortoise burrows. She predicted that leasing land to the zoos would limit what's available for use by hikers, campers and birders.
Zoo officials haven't specified which land they're interested in, but Killmar said that ideally it would be no more than an hour's drive away. For instance, Lowry used to lease about 1,400 acres in the Green Swamp from Swiftmud, he said, but because the law did not allow exotic animals to be turned loose the only animals they kept on the land were horses.
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Although the bills talk about research, the main reason the zoos want the land is to have room to create large breeding populations, Killmar explained. Right now they lack the space for breeding large herds of giraffes and rhinos. If they need more, they have to import them at great expense.
"We're like a shoe store with no warehouse," the zoo official said. "Our inventory is everything that's on display."
If the bills pass and the zoos are allowed to lease land for their herds of animals to breed, they would build fences, roads and maintenance buildings at each site to comply with federal regulations, he said.
But Sam Ard, a lobbyist for the Florida Cattlemen's Association, questioned whether the cost will be prohibitive. The association has taken no position, but Ard pointed out that cattle fencing costs $4,000 a mile, and the sturdier, higher fences required to contain rhinos and elephants cost at least twice that.
Killmar said the zoos would have plans in case any animals escape — say, during a hurricane — including putting tags on the animals to make them easier to track. "It's not like you're going to have giraffes running around all over Florida," he said. "Everyone wants to jump to the worst-case scenario."
Barnwell pointed out that Lowry's track record on its own property is less than stellar. Five years ago a zookeeper forgot to lock a tiger's cage. The tiger escaped and lunged at the zoo's veterinarian. The zoo's then-CEO gunned the animal down before it could harm anyone.
Then it turned out the CEO, Lex Salisbury, had transferred more than 200 of the zoo's animals to a private wildlife farm he owned in Polk County. A loss of accreditation ensued for the zoo and for Killmar, who had approved some of the transfers. Ultimately both were reinstated after Salisbury's forced resignation.
In an era when legislators have proposed adding everything from golf courses to oil wells to the state's park system as a way to boost revenues and create jobs, this is one effort that's rooted in something other than money. The sponsor in the House, Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Temple Terrace, said he proposed it because he's such a huge fan of the Lowry Park Zoo. "I just wanted to help them with their mission." He predicted the House version, which has passed all its committees without a single member voting nay, will come up for a vote this week. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, still awaits action by committee.
Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report.