Endangered species

Special Report: How safe is Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo?

click to enlarge RUSTED: Former zookeeper Czarnik took this photo in June, 2006 of the warped latch on a gate leading to the "night house" that confined the tiger Enshalla. Czarnik told his supervisors the latch was difficult to close. - Brian Czarnik
Brian Czarnik
RUSTED: Former zookeeper Czarnik took this photo in June, 2006 of the warped latch on a gate leading to the "night house" that confined the tiger Enshalla. Czarnik told his supervisors the latch was difficult to close.

The last four years had been good for Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. Attendance steadily climbed each year as new attractions were unveiled. Hundreds of thousands of adults and children entered the zoo to catch a glimpse of a baby elephant or orangutan.

But away from the gawking tourists and excited schoolchildren, some zoo employees were having a markedly different experience. Zookeepers Brian Czarnik and Carie Peterson complained of deteriorating and warped doors on the night houses, and overworked employees. Outreach education specialist Coleen Kremer felt the zoo was drifting away from its commitment to animal welfare. Security guard Jeff Kremer (Coleen's husband) repeatedly noticed maintenance problems and security issues unresolved for months. His supervisor Richard Justice, manager of security, became increasingly frustrated that his own supervisors were not listening to his pleas for better training and updated security and safety measures.

By July, they had all left the zoo. Frustrated by the lack of media coverage of these problems, Czarnik met with a Creative Loafing reporter to explain the dangers he saw facing the zoo, its employees and animals.

"It's an insane work environment," he said the night of Aug. 21. "Something bad is going to happen."

The next day, it did.

On Aug. 22, at roughly 5 p.m., a newly hired 24-year-old zookeeper placed Enshalla, one of the two Sumatran tigers at the zoo, into her night house in the Asia Domain. On his way out, the zookeeper forgot to lock one of the latches on the tiger's gate. Within minutes, Enshalla was out, roaming the empty exhibits adjacent to her enclosure. Zoo employees scrambled to get the remaining visitors out of the park or into a building. The zoo's chief executive, Lex Salisbury, and veterinarian David Murphy were called. While the animal prowled the dry moat of the former rhino habitat, Dr. Murphy and Salisbury, armed respectively with a tranquilizer and a 12-gauge shotgun, positioned themselves in the grass above the moat. When Murphy shot Enshalla with the tranquilizer, the tiger leapt toward him. Salisbury, in a split-second decision, shot Enshalla in midleap. She fell to the ground and, after three more shots, lay dead.

Zoo officials blamed the tiger's escape on "human error." They fired the zookeeper (his name has not yet been released); the man faces criminal charges for leaving the tiger's cage unlocked. But in interviews with CL, ex-employees of the zoo say that the conditions for such an error existed before the incident and remain a problem at the zoo. An Aug. 23 inspection report from U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service backs some of their complaints. In the report, USDA inspectors cited the zoo for six infractions, including an insufficient number of employees handling dangerous animals, lack of zookeeper training, deteriorating primate enclosures (including peeling paint) and damaged doors on the Colobus monkey and rhino enclosures.

Justice, the former manager of security, says, "There are basic operational rules that any company in the world will at least pay lip service to as far as training, retention of employees and basic safety practices. The zoo has none of these."

Zoo officials have refused to discuss these concerns with CL, saying it is a personnel matter. And yet, without any dialogue from zoo administrators and a lack in public oversight of the nonprofit institution, the former employees wonder: Will another grave tragedy occur?

The 49-year-old Lowry Park Zoo has weathered criticism in the past, but complaints have usually led to improvements. In the early 1980s, the Humane Society of the United States named it one of the 10 worst zoos in the United States, and the public outcry over the zoo's treatment of animals led to its short-term closure. After a combined effort by citizens and Tampa city officials, a new $20 million Lowry Park Zoo emerged in 1988. The following year, the primary (and voluntary) zoo regulatory agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, accredited the park, solidifying its new animal-friendly bent.

click to enlarge Enshalla in the summer of 2003. The Sumatran tiger was shot after escaping her enclosure at Lowry Park Zoo on Aug. 22, 2006. - Michael G. Kaplan
Michael G. Kaplan
Enshalla in the summer of 2003. The Sumatran tiger was shot after escaping her enclosure at Lowry Park Zoo on Aug. 22, 2006.

Although some problems occurred over the next two decades — an elephant killed a zookeeper in 1993, and controversies arose periodically about the zoo's breeding and animal trading practices — most people agreed Lowry Park Zoo had overcome the tainted image of its past. Habitats for the animals were enlarged and now are spacious with plenty of shade. Elephants, which once stood chained to concrete slabs waiting to give rides in the hot sun, now roam freely over 2.5 acres. The zoo became a leader in manatee recovery efforts. In 2004, Lowry Park received its highest distinction yet — named "No. 1 Family Friendly Zoo in the United States" by Child magazine.

"The first years were great," says Peterson, who volunteered with the zoo two years before being hired in 1999. "It felt like it was a big family."

Peterson worked her way up to become a lead (one step below supervisor) in the Asia Exhibit, which holds some of the zoo's most dangerous animals, including the Sumatran tigers. She underwent training with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office to become part of the weapons team — a handful of employees skilled in several types of weapons and entrusted to defend fellow employees in the event of an animal attack. Before she left last July, Peterson was also a duty supervisor for a few days a week, responsible for all zookeepers in case of an emergency.

In 2003, Czarnik, a former preschool teacher, joined Peterson in the Asia Domain exhibit. He excelled at his work, earning glowing reviews and quickly becoming "Zookeeper IV" — the highest level in the profession.

According to news accounts and press releases, Lowry Park Zoo has attracted record numbers of visitors every year since 2002, culminating in a 1-million-visitor record this year. Zoo officials poured money into new exhibits to keep the animal-lovers coming. In 2002, the zoo opened Wallaroo Station children's area and in 2004, Safari Africa opened. During the same time period, zoo officials raised admission prices — by $2 in 2003 and $3 in 2005, telling Tampa City Council they did not make enough revenue those years to break even. (The current adult ticket price is $14.95.) Zoo officials added more animals to their collection, estimated at 1,600 in 2003 to 1,800 this year. In the last fiscal year, Lowry Park celebrated 25 births and 18 acquisitions from other zoos.

But zookeepers Peterson and Czarnik say all of the new construction, increased attendance and the larger collection of animals put a burden on staff and affected the quality of care for the animals.

The former zookeepers charge:

• As the zoo's special events like Zoo Boo became more popular and maintenance crews were diverted to those areas, Czarnik and Peterson say they were instructed to help construct exhibits, taking away time from animal husbandry.

• High turnover in their departments resulted in very little oversight, they say. Czarnik and Peterson say often times they were the only zookeepers in the entire Asia Domain area. They say this situation was mirrored in other areas of the zoo.

• Every couple months, Czarnik says zookeepers were faced with food shortages. "Our grain buckets would be empty and we would call around to see [if other animal departments] had food and ration it out," he says. "There were times that other areas were out as well so we just had to wait." Czarnik says at these points they would wait a day for additional food. Coleen Kremer says she also experienced food shortages for the animals she took to schools and community centers as part of her outreach education specialist position.

• In June, after the death of Herman the chimpanzee, Czarnik and Peterson say they were told by their supervisor Pam Noel to omit any mention of animal sickness, injury or trips to the vet in the zookeepers' daily animal care sheet logs. Peterson says in one instance, she had taken a sick wallaby to the vet clinic, but the clinic's staff had left early for the day. When Peterson put this information on the animal care sheet, she claims Noel changed the report to omit that information. "The zoo was doing it to cover up the fact we had too much to handle," Czarnik says, adding the USDA or the AZA can review the animal care reports during inspections. "They didn't want to put any money into hiring new keepers or admitting we were in over our heads."

click to enlarge COMMENDED: Brian Czarnik, with a plaque commending his service to the zoo, claims he was fired for being too vocal in his complaints about zoo conditions. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
COMMENDED: Brian Czarnik, with a plaque commending his service to the zoo, claims he was fired for being too vocal in his complaints about zoo conditions.

• The zoo did not have enough room to house the animals it collected, the former zookeepers claim. Czarnik points to penguins, received by the zoo last year, that have yet to be put in a proper habitat, instead spending their days in two 15-foot-long-by-4-foot-wide cages, similar to an animal shelter's dog run. Two penguins have died already, he says. "We shouldn't have taken these birds if we couldn't provide for them," he says. "They still don't have a time frame for getting this exhibit done." As of the second week of October, according to sources within the zoo, the penguins still remained in the cage, their exhibit not yet constructed.

• Deteriorating animal night houses presented a safety hazard to zookeepers, they say. Czarnik says the animals' enclosures, some dating back to the zoo's opening in the '60s, showed their age with loose screws and broken hinges. He says the locks in Enshalla's caging area were warped and difficult to close. But when he complained to his supervisors, Noel and curator Lee Ann Rottman, almost every week by his estimation, nothing was done. Czarnik says he had a particularly hard time with the tapir, a large hooved animal. Due to the construction within the Asia Domain, there was not a separate room that could be used to secure the tapirs while the zookeepers put in their food.

"So you had to slide in their food real fast and then shut these doors really hard as they were always on the verge of breaking," Czarnik describes. "And the tapir can be a dangerous animal if scared or provoked in any way. So a little bit of fear was always there, but you had to cut some corners of safety to get your job done. ... You just always choose the lesser of the more dangerous things to do."

Peterson says the leopards' shift-gate latch — what separates the animals from zookeepers when feeding — fell off repeatedly due to substandard welding. In addition, the rhino barn's door, which also separates employees from the 1-2 ton animal, was broken for over a year and a half. Peterson says she left notes and talked to her supervisor, Noel, but the problems were never fixed. "There's been work orders that for years haven't been touched," she says. The damage to the rhino enclosure's door would later be cited in the report by the USDA.

Despite what they characterize as a hazardous working environment and objections by fellow zookeepers, Czarnik and Peterson say their fellow employees dared not speak up for fear of being fired or labeled an "animal activist."

"I knew for putting myself out there for animals, I would be on the block," Czarnik says.

During the same time period, on the operations side of the zoo, Jeff Kremer was also noticing security lapses. A former communications specialist for Honeywell, he'd left that job in 2003 after 21 years and taken the position as a zoo security guard out of a love for animals and a desire for a more fulfilling job. A few months later, his wife Coleen left the Pinellas County school system, where she worked as an early childhood educator, to become an outreach education specialist for the zoo.

On his shift, Kremer noticed that several maintenance issues would go unresolved for months at a time:

• He says two pumps controlled all aeration in the aquatic area, including aeration stones in the manatee tanks. But on any given week, he says, one of those pumps was broken along with one or two of the aeration stones. The exhibit could run on one pump, but Kremer says it presented a significant danger to the animals to not have a backup.

• In the aquarium exhibit, split hoses and tubes providing life support to the sea critters were "literally taped together," he says.

• Consistently, open nails, loose boardwalks and cracked sidewalks, which posed a safety hazard to visitors, were not fixed.

Kremer says he regularly mentioned the problems to his supervisors, but his pleas were ignored.

"These are things that could be easily remedied, but safety was not [the zoo's] focus," he says. "There is no preventive safety and security taking place. They are too busy expanding [the zoo] to care about maintenance."

The zoo's former manager of security, Richard Justice, agrees. He says Kremer spoke to him on numerous occasions, and Justice tried to fix some of the issues by contacting his own supervisors — Manager of Operations Brian Shannon, Director of Operations Cheryl Larsen and Director of Facilities Brian Morrow — so they could authorize a maintenance crew to fix the problems, but he says these requests fell victim to "organizational indifference."

click to enlarge CONCERNED: Coleen and Jeff Kremer, who resigned from the zoo in July, have created a group and a website to prod community discussion about the zoo. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
CONCERNED: Coleen and Jeff Kremer, who resigned from the zoo in July, have created a group and a website to prod community discussion about the zoo.

"The support for the security department was nil to non-existent," the former firefighter says. "Everything I tried to do to help the zoo as a whole was disregarded completely."

Justice says he started noticing the lapses in safety and security during his first year of employment in 2002: There was no formal training for any of the operations staff, from janitors to security; no safety manager (a common position at zoos nationwide, responsible for identifying visitor safety issues and fixing any problems to avoid lawsuits); and he was the only operations staff member with medical training beyond first aid. To Justice, these oversights for an organization with a $12 million budget and hundreds of employees were irresponsible.

Justice says Lowry Park is also woefully under-prepared when it comes to security breaches. Throughout his four years at the zoo, he says people entered by walking through gaps in the perimeter wall or dilapidated fencing. In an effort to improve the security of the park, Justice asked the Tampa Police Department in 2003 to conduct a security assessment report. Justice personally escorted police officers throughout the park, showing them the security breaches, including one that led directly inside the white rhino exhibit. But after the police department left, he never heard back on the report's status.

"I found out six months later that [Lowry Park Zoo] had received the report from TPD and it had been there for a while," he says. "And I actually never got to see it. As security manager, this would have been useful to me to help perform security."

The TPD refused Creative Loafing's request to view the report, citing an exemption in Florida Public Records Law for information related to security systems. Of the four security gaps around the zoo's perimeter that Justice reported in 2003, three are still unresolved and visible.

Justice, who managed between 11 and 14 guards, also criticized the zoo administration's treatment of employees. Many operations employees were classified as part-time and yet worked well over 40 hours a week without benefits. Security guards averaged $8-$9 an hour. Meanwhile, Salisbury's salary in FY 2005 was $266,523. Other administrators' salaries ranged from $86,000 to $126,000.

Frustrated with a lack of support from his supervisors, Justice resigned from the zoo in April. Jeff Kremer continued working in security, but became uneasy about the situation brewing at the zoo.

Peterson, Czarnik and the Kremers say they continued to work at the zoo to try and correct the issues from within. If they pressed hard enough and demonstrated their commitment to the institution, they reasoned, their supervisors would eventually make the necessary changes.

But after the death of Herman, the zoo's beloved chimpanzee and a fixture since its inception, the employees began to lose hope that change would come.

On June 8, Herman died after a brutal fight with another chimpanzee, Bamboo. Why the two chimps that had lived together happily for years erupted into violence is still a mystery, but some zookeepers suggested the introduction in the weeks prior of a new baby chimp, Sasha, upset the balance of power in the small enclosure.

On the day Herman died, someone within the zoo leaked the chimp's death to the media. The former employees say the zoo went into "lockdown." The zookeepers' in-house memorial ceremony for Herman was cancelled. Czarnik and Peterson say they, as well as all the other zookeepers at Lowry Park, were called into Lex Salisbury's office for interviews with Lee Ann Rottman and in some cases, Salisbury himself. Peterson, Czarnik and the Kremers deny they leaked anything to the media that day.

"It was like the inquisition," says Coleen Kremer. "It was really a negative campaign."

The former employees say the work environment at Lowry Park zoo became very tense after the chimp's death.

"We decided — if we can't help fix this, we need out," Coleen says. "We don't want to be part of something that puts animals' and people's lives at risk."

click to enlarge OLD SOUL: Herman, the zoo's beloved chimpanzee, died in June from injuries in a fight with another chimp. - Michael G. Kaplan
Michael G. Kaplan
OLD SOUL: Herman, the zoo's beloved chimpanzee, died in June from injuries in a fight with another chimp.

In July, Coleen and Jeff Kremer resigned. That same month, Czarnik was fired, he says, because of his continuing complaints. Peterson, saddled with even more responsibility after Czarnik left, also resigned in July.

"It just got to be too much," she says.

The former employees say theirs were just the latest in a long line of departures from the zoo.

"Basically you've lost all the management," Jeff Kremer says. "You've lost all your experience, all your anchors for a safe, enjoyable working environment."

Two weeks after Peterson left, a new zookeeper took her place as caretaker for the Sumatran tigers in the Asia Domain. A former bat keeper, the man had no experience with large carnivores. After less than a month at the zoo, he was left in charge of the Sumatran tigers, and on Aug. 22, he left Enshalla's cage unlocked, leading to her death.

The former zookeepers point to several mistakes made by the zoo in the lead-up to Enshalla's death. The lack of training for new employees and the absence of certain safety precautions, such as having another zookeeper accompany those who lock the night houses, contributed to the incident, they say.

"I was surprised an animal was shot and killed," Czarnik says about Enshalla's untimely demise, "but I had a feeling things would happen because they wouldn't keep a close watch on the area."

He doesn't blame Salisbury for the decision to shoot the animal, just "what led up to it."

Czarnik says the inexperienced zookeeper who let Enshalla out, who had only been at the zoo for a month, wasn't the only one who could have used more training.

"I felt a little nervous when I was left alone," he says about the first few months of his job in the Asia Domain. "At first I felt good because I thought they must really like me to trust me this much. Then you realize, nope — they are just shorthanded."

By contrast, Tampa's Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary, where Czarnik works now, requires keepers to work with smaller cats for over a year and a half before coming in contact with the tigers. And then they must train under director supervision for at least three months.

In the inspection report filed by the USDA on Aug. 23 and obtained by Tampa Bay's 10 News, federal inspectors agreed:

"The current safety protocol for shifting big cats is inadequate to safely handle these animals in a manner that minimizes the potential for physical harm or trauma to the cats, keepers and public," wrote an inspector in the report. " ... The lack of proper training given to the new employee presented a safety hazard and threat to the zoo staff as well as the general public."

"We kept waiting for something," Jeff Kremer says about the tiger's escape in August. "We were afraid it was going to happen."

"That is the first time a tiger has escaped, but I can tell you ... I've worked shifts where baby elephants got out — twice," he adds, going down a list of animals that escaped temporarily from their habitats into other areas in the zoo: leopards, an orangutan, Colobus monkeys, an alligator and emus. "A significant animal gets out of an exhibit on a once-a-month basis. It's not an uncommon thing."

American Association of Zoo Keepers Executive Director Ed Hansen says that's a problem.

"Once a month is very frequent even for a large zoo," says Hansen, a former zookeeper at Reid Zoo in Tucson, Ariz. "If my facility was having a large or dangerous animal escape once a month, I would be doing some serious internal investigations and retraining my staff."

In a statement sent to Tampa Bay's 10 News responding to the USDA report, zoo spokesperson Nelson said the incident was "not a training issue, but rather a very unfortunate human error." In other media reports involving brief mentions of claims made by Czarnik, including two St. Petersburg Times articles and a Fox 13 interview, zoo officials dismissed him as a disgruntled employee. In Times writer Thomas French's nearly 8,000-word tribute to Herman and Enshalla, where just over 140 words were devoted to claims by Czarnik and Peterson, there was no response by the zoo.

click to enlarge PEACEABLE KINGDOM: Animals in the Safari Africa section of the zoo - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
PEACEABLE KINGDOM: Animals in the Safari Africa section of the zoo

In an e-mail to CL, Nelson refused to comment on any of the allegations made by former employees.

"The grievances of these employees have been well documented in the media in recent weeks, and we don't have anything to add to that," wrote Nelson. "We consider this a personnel matter, which we won't discuss today or another time."

Murphy, Salisbury, Murrow, Shannon and Noel did not return repeated calls for comment. Rottman, when reached, refused to comment. The zoo's attorney, Richard A. Harrison, denied Florida Public Records Act requests for several documents related to the zoo's operations. Following CL's attempts to contact zoo administrators directly, Nelson sent a letter to the paper's editor suggesting that such efforts bordered on "harassment," and that "it is [the zoo's] policy and a condition of our employment that employees are requested to not have any contact with the press on matters regarding the zoo or their employment here," and that all such inquiries must be referred to the public relations office.

The AZA, which produces an accreditation report every five years on its members, cannot release any information about inspections to the public due to a confidentiality agreement between its members. The only recent document on the zoo's practices to surface publicly has been the Aug. 23 USDA inspection report.

Former employees say current zookeepers cannot speak for fear of losing their jobs. "We all knew if you say something and have an opinion, you're gone," says Nicole Myers, a former zookeeper who resigned in April after two years in the aviary department. "You know that from the first month."

AAZK's Hansen does provide a balanced view on complaints lodged at zoos. Hansen says zoos face some of the same challenges as any other organization in which a worker-vs.-management sentiment can flourish. And in some cases, he says, that feeling is amplified at a zoo.

"Keepers, because they are so passionate about what they do, they lose sight sometimes that running the zoo is a business," he says. "It's an entertainment business and a conservation business. Sometimes keepers fail to see both sides."

City officials say they have a limited role in the zoo's practices, despite the fact that they occupy four seats on the nonprofit's board, and that the City of Tampa, which owns the land the zoo sits upon, provides the nonprofit thousands of dollars a year ($500,000 for FY 2006 alone). On Sept. 7, Tampa city attorney David Smith told the Tampa City Council that the city has little control over the zoo's operations, hiring or training. It is a position shared by some council members.

"We do have a lot of faith in the administration over there," says Councilwoman Mary Alvarez, who says she hasn't heard any of the former employees' complaints.

She says the nonprofit board makes most of the decisions regarding the zoo. Mayor Pam Iorio, Councilman Shawn Harrison, Parks and Recreation Director Karen Palus and Neighborhoods Coordinator Santiago Corrada sit on that board, along with other community and business leaders.

Board member Corrada says the city received some anonymous allegations after the tiger's death, but he had not heard the specific complaints CL obtained.

"I'd not heard any of these at any of the board meetings I had attended," he says.

Corrada says as a board member he was free to ask questions of the zoo's administration, but he was unsure of how much oversight the city possessed over the zoo. He says the nonprofit's executive committee met more often than the quarterly meeting he attended. Board Chairman Bill Blanchard, Vice-Chair Robert Thomas and Treasurer Brett Couch could not be reached for comment. The former employees say they never contacted any board member regarding their complaints, and no board member ever approached them.

"We didn't even know who the board was," says Peterson.

All six ex-zoo workers have moved on to new jobs: Czarnik works with Big Cat Rescue; Peterson cares for domestic animals at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay; Myers works at a pet store; Justice is now a lieutenant at a security company in Clermont, Fla.; Jeff Kremer is employed at a hospital and Coleen Kremer returned to education.

Despite leaving the zoo, all of them want to continue to fight for the welfare of the animals and staff. Czarnik and Peterson have joined Jeff and Coleen Kremer in a group called Advocates for Excellence of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo to help prod community discussion on the issues facing the zoo. Their website, www.TampasZooAdvocates.com, went live in late September; it lists animal and staff issues, and calls for the community to work together with the zoo's administration to solve the problems they say still plague the facility.

"We really just want the community to come together to hopefully put pressure on the zoo to move in a positive way," Coleen says. "We're just trying to say, 'Hey, listen, these are some things that we feel if we bring to the public in conversation that we can help affect some positive change.'"

"We all don't hate the zoo," Peterson says. "We just hate the way it's going."

Says Czarnik: "There's great people there, they just feel trapped because they can't be outspoken."

But if something isn't done, these zookeepers say, tragedies will continue to occur.

"I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that these things are going to continue to happen," Jeff Kremer says. "Whether we hear about it or not, I don't know."

Read how Alex got the story: Behind the story.

Editor’s Note: The URL for Jeff and Colleen Kremer’s group was changed recently. The reference to the website in the story has been corrected to reflect the new name. 

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