By STEVE ANDREWS
Published: May 14, 2009
LAKELAND – Robert King fulfilled a dream 20 years ago. He escaped the rigors of city living, bought about 30 acres off Moore Road and started raising cattle.
His ranch is on the edge of the Green Swamp, which is the source for multiple rivers, streams and wetlands in Florida.
These days King keeps an eye on his cows that are about to deliver calves. He also keeps watch on his neighbor to the northwest, Safari Adventures.
The 260-acre animal park in Polk County, formerly known as Safari Wild, is the brainchild of former Lowry Park Zoo CEO Lex Salisbury and his business partner, St. Petersburg veterinarian Stephen Wehrmann. Their plans, currently on hold because of permitting issues, call for the development to house 1,000 animals and entertain up to 500 paying visitors a day with guided tours, restaurants and a gift shop.
Concerns increase for hurricane season
King and other neighbors are wary of how those animals, including cheetahs, will be kept within the confines of the park.
“Recently, we heard about the possibility of large cats being out here and I think probably all of us do have a concern about that,” King said.
As hurricane season approaches, the park’s plan to deal with the possibility of high winds knocking down fences haven’t lessened those worries.
The park’s plan, titled “Escaped Animal and Hurricane Protocol” and required by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says no animals will be evacuated during a hurricane threat.
The plan calls for two staff members to stay on-site to monitor operations. Also, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and neighbors will be contacted in the “unlikely case of an escaped Class 1 animal.” Class 1 animals include lions, tigers, elephants and rhinoceros.
According to its plan, “Experience has shown that animals will generally not use a break in the fence to escape their enclosure for at least 24 hours, so animals will stay put in their territories providing ample time to make fence repairs.”
That doesn’t make King comfortable. He says that the animal park didn’t keep monkeys from escaping.
Safari Adventures made headlines across the nation last year when 15 patas monkeys swam off an island where they were being held and bolted into the Green Swamp.
An animal inventory list Salisbury provided the Fish and Wildlife commission in 2007 shows he possessed 10 cheetahs.
Salisbury “is licensed for big cats,” Daryl Amerson, a commission investigator, said recently. A report by Amerson said there were no big cats at the animal park during an inspection in March.
King’s grandchildren also live near Safari Adventures, next door to his home.
“We have a great deal of concern about that not only from the possibility of the animals escaping like the monkeys escaped and being out loose, but there’s a great personal danger to the people who live around here not to mention the cattle that are all around here if any of those big cats should happen to get out,” King said.
King pointed out that Lowry Park Zoo had a 200-pound Sumatran tiger escape from its cage.
“If I recall correctly, Lowry Park had a cat that got out of the pen due to human negligence or human error some years back,” he said.
In 2006, a tiger named Enshala wandered out of her cage at Lowry Park Zoo when a zookeeper left a door unlatched. Salisbury shot Enshala with a shotgun, killing her, before the animal could escape into a public area.
“Not only for the children’s sake but adults also, I don’t think large cats are discriminatory when it comes to eating,” he said.
County approval still not a done deal
Wehrmann did not return a call to discuss Safari Adventures; however, that same day he filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration when News Channel 8’s Eagle 8 helicopter flew around the park to update video and pictures.
When contacted by telephone, Salisbury shouted, “Don’t ever call me again.” Then he hung up.
Salisbury was forced to resign from the taxpayer-supported zoo after it was discovered he used zoo animals and equipment to help build the animal park. A city of Tampa audit found that Salisbury owes the zoo more than $200,000 in animals and materials he used for the animal park.
The city gave a copy of the audit to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and asked that it conduct a criminal investigation.
Polk County Growth Management Director Thomas Deardorff said county approval for Safari Adventures is not a done deal.
“It could be turned down or it could be approved with modifications,” he said recently.
Deardorff contends a “welcome barn” was built without the animal park obtaining the proper permits.
“Our building division issued a stop-work order,” he said. “That stop-work order remains in effect.”
Reporter Steve Andrews can be reached at (813) 221-5779.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org