Endangered species

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

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"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.

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