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Lowry Park Zoo, Salisbury reach settlement

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 07:23 AM
TAMPA -

A city audit late last year found that Lowry Park Zoo's former president took more than $200,000 in animals and supplies to help start his private exotic-animal park.

Today, the zoo announced a legal settlement that calls for its former chief executive, Lex Salisbury, to pay the zoo about $2,200. Salisbury will return all zoo property and barns still on his property.

The agreement marks the end of the zoo's ties to its former leader who lured big-name donors, powerful allies and is widely credited with transforming one of the nation's worst facilities to one of the best.

"I think it's fair," said Bob Rasmussen, a board member of the Lowry Park Zoological Society who served as a liaison to outside legal counsel. "It's time to close this chapter and move on with our mission."

The city, which owns the zoo's land and animals, is not endorsing the agreement.

"The city does not condone the settlement, only because we never condoned the transactions," said Santiago Corrada, the city's representative on the zoo board. "But we did understand the position of the society and its desire to avoid litigation."

City leaders have maintained that Salisbury wrongly took zoo animals to his private property and convinced former executive committee members to sign off on improper transactions.

The board asked Salisbury to resign from his $339,000-a-year job in December after a Tampa Tribune investigation and a city audit found Salisbury took more than $200,000 in animals and supplies.

The Tribune investigation and the city audit found that Salisbury used the taxpayer-backed zoo to help build his private, yet-to-open exotic-animal park in Polk County, Safari Wild.

Salisbury has maintained he never inappropriately profited from his ties to the zoo. The barns were part of a memorandum of understanding between the zoo's executive committee and Safari Wild. The agreement allowed the zoo to use 10 acres of Salisbury's land for animals that needed space to roam.
Salisbury could not be reached for comment.

His attorney, Robert McKee, said he will hold a news conference Monday morning to release a statement.

During the negotiations with zoo lawyers, Salisbury contended the zoo owes him $48,644 for boarding its animals at his personal Dade City ranch and at Safari Wild.

The zoo "strongly refutes" that it owed animal boarding fees, but agreed to pay them as part of the negotiations, according to the settlement.

In exchange, Salisbury will repay $21,056, including:

•$2,556 for boarding his animals at Lowry Park Zoo.

•$627 the zoo paid in taxes for animal feed for Salisbury's personal animal collection.

•$5,772 for the difference between a 1963 Mercedes safari vehicle owned by the zoo that Safari Wild traded for a lawn mower.

•$6,942 for a bonus Salisbury gave himself in April 2008.

•$1,359 for the cost of bringing his wife on an international business trip in 2007.

•$3,800 for a three-day layover in Paris after a business trip to a conference in South Africa.

Salisbury will pay $29,800 to remove fences, a horse barn, a primate barn and shade structures the zoo built at Safari Wild.

The zoo's executive committee agreed to spend $150,000 to build the structures and erect fencing at Safari Wild, the city audit found.

The fencing is the same kind used at the zoo's large-animal pens, so it will be used to repair or expand existing fenced areas, Rasmussen said. The shade structures will also be used at the zoo.

The larger barns will be stored until the zoo finds a suitable place to rebuild them, he said.

The zoo continues to look for pasture land near the Tampa Bay area to send exhibit animals that need a break from confinement.

In the end, Salisbury must cut a check to the zoo for $2,212.

"After evaluating the amounts in controversy, the relative legal merit of the claims, the disruptive effect on the zoological society, and the cost of litigation - which could easily exceed $200,000 - we believed it was not in the best interest of the zoological society to litigate," said Rasmussen.

Salisbury's former employer won other concessions.

Salisbury must turn over ownership records for a baby pygmy hippopotamus, Annakina, which is exhibited at the zoo. Salisbury contended he owned the animal, which is worth $5,000 to $10,000.

Salisbury also agreed not to recruit zoo donors or employees for his private ventures for two years.

"Everyone involved worked hard to ensure that the best interests of the zoo were well represented, and I am satisfied that all parties were treated fairly and this was resolved in an equitable manner," board chairwoman Catherine Lowry Straz said in a statement.

Salisbury maintained in the settlement that he never broke any laws. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement continues to look into the matter, said Heather Smith, an FDLE spokeswoman.

Salisbury's dealings caused numerous setbacks for the zoo.

Two months before he stepped down, Fassil Gabremariam, the zoo board chairman who signed off on many of Salisbury's transactions, resigned.

Longtime board member Bob Merritt stepped in as chairman, only to resign in January, citing personal reasons.

Salisbury's animal-dealing cost the zoo its endorsement from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the nation's premier accrediting organization.

The zoo regained the organization's blessing in March, after Salisbury had left.
Today, the zoo remains without a permanent top executive.

Craig Pugh, who served as deputy director under Salisbury, remains the interim chief.


Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at 813-259-7668.

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