Endangered species

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

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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.

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