It all started with 15 Patas monkeys.
On a warm Saturday in April, the African primates made a dash for freedom from a large property outside of Lakeland, swimming through a moat and jumping a fence into the wilds of Polk County.
The story might have garnered only a few lines in the local newspaper if not for the connections between the 260-acre tract of land, the monkeys and Lex Salisbury, CEO of the nonprofit Lowry Park Zoo. Salisbury co-owned the property, and the monkeys, and planned to open Safari Wild, a for-profit animal park where up to 500 visitors would pay $50 to see exotic species like zebras, rhinos and cheetahs.
Suddenly, everyone — nearby residents, reporters, Polk County and state officials, Lowry Park zoo board members and Tampa's mayor — started asking questions.
In 2006, after Lex Salisbury shot and killed an escaped Sumatran tiger at Lowry Park, Creative Loafing investigated several claims against the zoo (see "Endangered Species: How Safe is Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo," Oct. 25, 2006). Former employees gave detailed accounts of a number of issues at the zoo ranging from ignored safety measures, inexperienced and overworked employees and escaped animals. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report substantiated many of these claims. But there was one rumor from the employees that was not easily proven: Salisbury was creating a zoo of his own.
"We knew animals were coming and going," says Jeff Kremer, a former Lowry Park Zoo employee who launched the Tampa's Zoo Advocates website after leaving the zoo that year, "but nobody was putting two and two together."
The rumor proved to be true.
In early 2006, Salisbury, along with St. Petersburg veterinarian Stephen Wehrmann, approached a Polk County property owner about buying 260 acres of land just north of Lakeland for a guided safari-like attraction with African and Asian wildlife — some of which would be animals from Lowry Park Zoo that needed a break from captivity.
Soon after, Salisbury and Wehrmann met privately with Polk County officials and later that year, with only a small notice in the local newspaper, and no public hearing, a Polk County planner approved the initial land use designation for the animal park.
Salisbury then met with the Lowry Park Zoological Society Board's executive committee to hammer out an agreement that the two entities would not compete, but would share some animals and resources. Then-chairman Fassil Gabremariam — who also sat on the board of the Safari Wild Conservation Foundation along with Salisbury and Wehrmann — would approve all transactions between the two parks. In 2007, Salisbury met with the full Lowry Park Zoo board, who did not approve such a deal.
"I thought it was done," says Santiago Corrada, Tampa's administrator of neighborhood services and one of the city's representatives on the full zoo board.
But over the last year, according to public records and interviews, Lowry Park Zoo personnel and resources were used to coordinate private tours, construct two buildings and fencing, and move zoo animals to Safari Wild. All of it done without the knowledge of the full zoo board, which includes Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other city and county officials.
That is, until the monkeys escaped. Then, in a flurry of news reports, Salisbury's connections to the for-profit Safari Wild became public. Elected officials expressed concern; after all, Lowry Park Zoo receives hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to operate and millions more to build new attractions.
In June, the zoo's executive committee severed their ties with Safari Wild and promised a full audit of transactions between the two parks (that audit is ongoing). And last month, Mayor Iorio — troubled by what she called "Rhinogate" — demanded more city oversight, recognition that all zoo animals are owned by the city and promises that any transfer would require the city's approval. After much wrangling, Salisbury agreed.
(Salisbury did not return calls for comment for this story.)
In an interview with CL, Safari Wild co-owner Wehrmann contends that their relationship with Lowry Park was a "win-win" situation that was not financially beneficial for Salisbury.
"[After the audit] he'll be completely vindicated," says Wehrmann. "It's nothing like the press has built it up to be. There is no hidden agenda."
As the controversy continues, more officials are raising questions about the proposed animal park.
In a Sep. 5 letter to Safari Wild, Polk County Manager Michael Herr expressed concern over myriad problems with the property, including lack of access for emergency vehicles and lack of a disaster plan. No more visitors are allowed on the property, Herr stated, until a required county development review.
And the Florida Department of Community Affairs claims they never received any information about the animal park, even though the DCA must review all developments in the Green Swamp area that Safari Wild lies in. State officials say they have yet to receive the necessary paperwork from Safari Wild.
Wehrmann says Safari Wild has complied with all county and state regulations.
"We did everything we were required to do," he says.
Up the road from Safari Park on Moore Road, resident Lois Murphy wonders if that was enough. She only learned of Safari Wild's plans after the monkeys escaped.
"For someone to put exotic animals in your neighborhood, that's something you'd like to know about," she says.
As information pours in about Salisbury's plans for the property, Murphy says her neighbors are uneasy. Among their concerns: the absence of a public hearing to approve the property's land use, increased traffic in their rural neighborhood and the possibility of escaped animals.
"How can we be assured something like a rhinoceros would not escape?" she says. "Given how much we don't know so far, we can't be assured of anything."
(Wehrmann says Safari Wild has taken several precautions, including double and triple fencing, to protect against escapes.)
Since escaping five months ago, 10 of the Patas monkeys have been caught — six of those on Murphy's property. Five still remain at large, though Murphy says her neighbors are no longer concerned about the primates.
"We have come to peace with the monkeys," Murphy says. "If it weren't for the monkeys, we wouldn't have known about any of this."