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Zoo’s Link To Planned Safari Wild Is Murky

Please drop a note to the reporter at bhelgeson@tampatrib.com

or post a comment to this article at http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/aug/23/na-zoos-link-to-planned-safari-wild-is-murky/#comments

and support this investigation by State Senator Victor Crist at crist.victor.web@flsenate.gov

 

COPY OF MY COMMENTS:

 

To: Baird Helgeson          bhelgeson@tampatrib.com

 

Thank you for your continued coverage about this glaring misuse of public funding. I am outraged that my tax dollars are going towards subsidizing the development of Salisbury's "side" business. His compensation package ($271,000) is generous enough without including a free personal labor source for development of outside profit ventures at the taxpayers' expense.

On a side note, if conditions at Lowry Park Zoo are so ideal and wonderful (as they are touted to be), why aren't visitors and taxpayers asking the obvious question: why do these animals need a place "to recover from being on display?" It also begs the question, what are the living conditions really like for all those animals that are behind the scenes and off display at the zoo. That's where the investigative reporters need to dig for the truth, too.

 

Zoo's Link To Planned Safari Wild Is Murky

 

By BAIRD HELGESON

The Tampa Tribune

Published: August 23, 2008

From the beginning, Lowry Park Zoo President Lex Salisbury insisted that his Safari Wild exotic animal park in Lakeland would be a separate, private venture.

Lowry Park Zoo is a nonprofit organization that has been funded with millions of dollars in taxpayer money. Safari Wild is a fledgling, for-profit business owned by Salisbury and St. Petersburg veterinarian Stephen Wehrmann.

But a series of e-mail messages obtained by The Tampa Tribune shows that the zoo's paid administrative staffers have worked to promote and garner political favor for Salisbury's private animal park, which is not open and remains mired in state and county permitting issues. It also appears that the zoo's staff has done work for Safari Wild without a vote of approval by the zoo's board.

"I didn't know anything about it," said Bill Blanchard, last year's chairman of the zoo board who remains on the board. "I can understand some coordination, but zoo staff should not be helping him build Safari Wild."

It's unclear how much time zoo staffers spend working for Safari Wild, but one e-mail exchange indicated that a zoo administrator attended an animal park tour for Polk County tourism officials.

Salisbury declined requests for an interview, but zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said staffers have spent a negligible amount of time doing work for Safari Wild.

The employees "work for the zoo. They do not work for Safari Wild," she said.

Nelson characterized any work done for Safari Wild as incidental, like a secretary spending a few minutes to schedule a meeting between Salisbury and someone interested in the exotic animal park.

The fact that Safari Wild doesn't have an office or staff means some basic administrative tasks sometimes fall to zoo employees, Nelson said.

"Everybody knows it's hard to find Lex without calling the zoo," Nelson said. "The best we can do is pass along that information. And as his business develops, that will become moot once he has an office and staff."

'I Absolutely Love It There!!'

Some of the e-mail details work done by a zoo executive to help promote Safari Wild internationally.

Debbie Novak, the zoo's sales manager, scheduled and attended at least one Safari Wild tour for Polk County tourism officials in March.

"We are all still talking about our experience at Safari Wild," Joni Allen at the Central Florida Visitors and Convention Bureau wrote in an April 15 e-mail to Novak's zoo address. "Between you and me we'll be able to fill the place!"

Novak replied 15 minutes later: "I am so glad you all had a good time! I absolutely love it there!! It was great to see everyone from your office."

Novak went on to talk about unveiling Safari Wild at the International Pow Wow, one of the nation's largest travel expos. "It's the perfect tradeshow to launch it!" she wrote.

Novak arranged for Allen to distribute Safari Wild brochures at the tourism expo to promote the attraction.

"I am so sorry for the delay Joni!!! I just got them. Retail rates are $59 for adults and $42 for children," Novak wrote.

That same day, Katy Martin with the central Florida convention bureau arranged for a group of travel writers to tour Safari Wild in mid-June.

"Hopefully many stories will result and give you some great publicity," she wrote to Salisbury's zoo e-mail address. She copied Novak on the message.

In late May, Polk County officials ordered Safari Wild to stop work on the property after county staff found what appeared to be building permit violations.

About two weeks later, the zoo's human resources assistant, Sylvia Hatcher, exchanged e-mail with Polk County staff to arrange a Safari Wild tour for Commissioner Bob English.

On June 19, Hatcher arranged for Polk County Commission Chairman Sam Johnson to tour Safari Wild. Salisbury later made a $250 donation to Johnson's re-election campaign.

Novak and Hatcher referred questions to Nelson.

Nelson said Novak already had a business relationship with the central Florida convention bureau through the zoo and that it made sense for her to facilitate a meeting with Safari Wild.

"To me, it doesn't seem absolutely crazy," Nelson said. "She is not representing Safari Wild."

But Martin, with the convention bureau, said Friday it was her understanding that Novak works for the zoo and does public relations work for Safari Wild.

A local lawyer who specializes in nonprofit organizations said the arrangement between the zoo and Safari Wild could raise ethics issues.

"If the executive is using the zoo as a private pool of resources to develop a for-profit venture, without board approval, it could be improper," said Daniel Anderson of Tampa.

Anderson and other attorneys for nonprofit organizations said the fact that the zoo receives taxpayer support amplifies the potential conflict.

Lowry Park Zoological Society, the nonprofit organization that runs the zoo, had a budget about $13.5 million in 2006. Of that, less than 6 percent was from government subsidy, according to the zoo's annual report.

That year, Hillsborough County taxpayers gave the zoo $2 million for capital improvements and $499,980 for daily operations, according to the county budget office.

The city gave the zoo $350,000 for operations in 2006, according to the city budget. This year, the city will boost the contribution to $450,000.

In 2006, Salisbury made more than $271,000 as zoo director.

State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said the zoo's board should be looking at the relationship with Safari Wild.

"It raises an eyebrow of concern," said Crist, who is a strong backer of the zoo and of Salisbury. "It could be a beneficial relationship, but it needs to be out in the open."

Escaped Patas Monkeys Drew Attention

There is a natural connection between the zoo and the animal park. Salisbury has said that the animal park would be a place for zoo animals to recover from being on display, with room to roam freely.

The proposal for the Polk County animal park included African-style safari tours in which up to 500 daily visitors would see roughly 1,000 exotic and endangered species, including zebras, cheetahs and potentially rhinoceroses.

Salisbury also has said the zoo is looking for a large piece of property to buy in the Tampa Bay area for a satellite facility, where visitors could see animals in a different, more natural habitat.

Safari Wild remained relatively unknown until April when 15 newly acquired patas monkeys escaped an island on the property that Salisbury thought would contain them.

The primates lasted just a few days in captivity before they swam to freedom and bolted into the nearby swampland. Since then, they have proven difficult to capture and surprised a few neighbors with occasional appearances in their yards.

By mid-July, 10 monkeys had been caught and five remained at large.

Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at                (813) 259-7668         or bhelgeson@tampatrib.com.


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