"Critics such as Carole Baskin said the organization is designed to legitimize and protect shady exotic-animal breeders."
Zoo Chief's Nature Reflects Decisions
Published: October 12, 2008
Updated: 12:13 am
TAMPA – Lex Salisbury says he isn't much for reflection.
The president and chief executive officer of Lowry Park Zoo does what he believes is right and admits he doesn't always think enough about the consequences.
"I take responsibility for being a risk-taker, that's my makeup," Salisbury said in an interview in mid-September. "I'm impatient."
Zoo donors and people in the exotic animal industry are often charmed by Salisbury's passion for animals. But his impetuous nature has not stood up well to public scrutiny in recent weeks.
Salisbury took an immediate leave of absence early this month until the completion of two separate audits reviewing whether he improperly used zoo resources and animals for Safari Wild, his private exotic-animal park in Polk County. The audits should be complete in coming weeks.
Safari Wild has not opened, halted by state and county permitting problems.
Salisbury's decisive nature is at least part of the reason Lowry Park Zoo went from one of the nation's worst zoos to one of the best. He came to the zoo 21 years ago when it had seven staff members and 32 animals. The zoo now has 2,000 animals, 260 employees and a $20 million budget.
Salisbury offered an anecdote that puts his decisiveness in the best light. A few years ago, Salisbury heard that some elephants in Africa were going to be killed.
"I made the decision that – and it wasn't anything in any planning document – we were going to go rescue them for the zoo," he said.
Salisbury went to Africa and brought the elephants to Tampa.
"Attendance went up, so it worked out," he said.
Salisbury's take-charge attitude has brought more trouble than praise recently.
Salisbury and other Lowry Park officials developed a plan to transport zoo animals to Safari Wild so the animals could roam and take a break from being on display. That plan has been criticized because of the possible conflicts of interest.
The Tampa Tribune reported that Salisbury used zoo administrative staff to promote and build support for Safari Wild. Criticism intensified when Lowry Park board members learned that the zoo built two barns on Safari Wild property.
The barns were built as part of a now-voided memorandum of understanding between the zoo's six-member executive committee and Salisbury. The executive committee severed the relationship in June over conflict of interest concerns.
Salisbury said he never anticipated the criticism and admitted he has never been good at the politics his position sometimes requires.
Others take a less-charitable view.
"It's almost like he's been there so long he thinks it's his," said Roger Rigau, a Tampa lawyer who represents a client involved in a national zoo organization with Salisbury. "He just kind of takes control and does whatever he wants."
Salisbury said his first concern usually involves what he thinks is best for the animals. That's at least part of the reason he lives on a private, exotic animal ranch in Dade City.
Many zoo directors are "usually bureaucrats who go home to the suburbs," Salisbury said.
"On my private time, I choose not to play golf. I choose not to live in South Tampa," he said. "I choose to live on a ranch and have warthogs and giraffe and stuff like that. That's the way I like to live. I know that's hard for some people to understand."
Nonprofit Has 'Exchange List'
Sometimes Salisbury's penchant for mixing animals and profit has caused concern.
Salisbury and the zoo's director of collections have taken leadership roles in a fledgling nonprofit organization that supports exotic-animal breeders, animal parks and a few zoos. The Zoological Association of America, formed in 2005, is headquartered in an office it rents at Lowry Park Zoo.
The Lowry Park Zoo's director of collections, Larry Killmar, is the chairman and Salisbury is the secretary.
The association's mission is to promote responsible animal ownership and breeding. Among its primary issues is to defend the right of private citizens to own animals.
Critics such as Carole Baskin said the organization is designed to legitimize and protect shady exotic-animal breeders. Baskin is chief executive officer and founder of Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit sanctuary for exotic cats in Citrus Park.
The association accredits Safari Wild and Salisbury's personal land, the B.A. Ranch. The accreditation ensures a certain level of animal care and expertise.
The association also accredits a drive-through animal ranch in Mooresville, N.C., another in Michigan, a kangaroo ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and a dog and cat boarding facility in Evansville, Ind.
These operations are not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, widely considered the nation's top zoological association. The AZA accredits Lowry Park Zoo.
Several AZA-approved zoos are reluctant to buy or sell animals from the private sector or private dealers.
That means animal parks such as Safari Wild might have trouble buying or selling animals from AZA facilities.
So the ZAA is creating its own database, expected to include thousands of people across the nation who have or breed exotic animals.
The "exchange list" also could be used by animal attractions hoping to beef up their collections, said John Chatfield, a founding member and rare-animal breeder who lives near Salisbury.
The ZAA could make it easier for Safari Wild to acquire animals.
Promoting Own Interests?
The leadership of Salisbury and Killmar on the ZAA board has not been welcomed by everyone.
ZAA member Thomas S. Carter says Salisbury and Killmar improperly tried to change the bylaws to give control of the organization to people who own game parks such as Safari Wild.
Carter's attorney, Rigau, sent a letter to the ZAA board July 22 stating that Salisbury and Killmar made the changes without a vote of the actual board or the full membership. He contends the two seized control of the organization to promote their own interests.
Carter demanded the immediate resignation of Killmar and Salisbury.
Killmar and Salisbury were not available to comment about the ZAA and have not responded to Rigau's letter.
Killmar sent an e-mail Sept. 8 to ZAA members, in part to address Carter's concerns.
"All actions taken by this board have been in accordance with the current bylaws and under the advice of counsel," he wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Tampa Tribune. "ZAA is governed by a board of 11 individuals, not a committee of two."
Charisma Wears Off For Some
Several former friends or business associates said the allure of Salisbury's charisma fades over time. Some who once saw Salisbury as a crusading pioneer in the zoo world now see him as someone whose charm ends when he doesn't get his way.
Andrew Hupp is among the disenchanted.
Hupp sold Salisbury 47 acres in Dade City in 2001.
A member of the zoo's board, Bill Blanchard, knew Salisbury wanted land for a home in the country.
Blanchard, who owns property in the area, knew Hupp had pastureland in Pasco County he might be willing to sell.
Salisbury bought the land for $240,000, and Hupp kept his remaining 487 acres for his personal ranch.
Hupp's longtime ranch hand helped Salisbury build fences and feed his animals. The ranch hand even killed and skinned an injured zebra for Salisbury.
Salisbury and the ranch hand had a falling out, in part, over the time it was taking to feed Salisbury's burgeoning collection of animals.
Salisbury called Hupp to make accusations against the ranch hand, suggesting he be fired.
"That wasn't going to happen," Hupp said.
Now Salisbury and Hupp are quarreling over the easement of a road through Salisbury's property.
"Lex gets along with everyone real well until you don't do what he says," Hupp said. "He's a bitter soul."
For all of his successes, Salisbury's fate will unfold in the coming weeks when the results of the audits are made public. This time, the decision is out of his hands.
Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at (813) 259-7668.
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