Endangered species

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

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"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.

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