The last seven months have been one of the worst periods in Lowry Park Zoo's history. First, reporters discovered Lowry Park CEO Lex Salisbury's use of zoo personnel and resources for personal gain. Then revelations about dead zoo animals at Salisbury's Dade City ranch leaked out. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums revoked Lowry Park's accreditation. And the city of Tampa conducted an audit, which led to Salisbury losing the job he'd held for over two decades.
Not far from the zoo in a small Seminole Heights bungalow, Jeff and Coleen Kremer watched the scandal unfold with a sense of déjà vu.
Creative Loafing interviewed the Kremers in 2006 as part of an investigation into public safety issues at the zoo. Along with a handful of other former zoo employees, the couple claimed Salisbury's heavy-handed style was one of the problems leading to a myriad of safety issues at the zoo.
Each employee saw a different aspect of alleged mismanagement at the zoo — animal escapes, broken locks on dangerous animal cages, lack of food — but they all shared one concern: the culture of intimidation at the zoo created by Salisbury.
"We all knew if you say something and have an opinion, you're gone," said one zookeeper. "You know that from the first month."
The Kremers were the most outspoken of all of the zoo critics, partly because they had the most knowledge of problems within the zoo. As a security guard, Jeff witnessed numerous animal escapes and safety hazards to visitors. Coleen, an outreach education specialist, saw ill-maintained animal cages and animal welfare issues.
Resigning in 2006 after four years as zoo employees, the Kremers launched a website — tampaszooadvocates.com — that cataloged their firsthand knowledge of animal and staff issues at the zoo, along with news reports and various public documents, including unfavorable U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, lawsuits from former employees and negative food inspections. They contacted current and former employees, zoo industry officials, anyone who would listen.
"We were in constant contact with people throughout this time," says Jeff Kremer.
The zoo noticed, and at one point threatened a lawsuit. When the Kremers began contacting attorneys to represent them, one warned the couple to start "looking under their car" because they were "messing with some of the top families in Tampa."
When reporters discovered Salisbury's dealings with Safari Wild and Lowry Park zoo, the Kremers met with them. They passed along copies of studbooks that showed the deaths of some zoo animals at Salisbury's ranch and passed along sources willing to talk, including Mark Reynolds, who later went public alleging Salisbury took zoo animals to his private ranch.
"The last couple of months we've been doing as much as we could to help our journalism friends," Jeff says.
In November, the Kremers called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (for the first time). Last week, PETA called for criminal charges against Salisbury.
The only people who didn't return the Kremers' calls were city officials.
"I had faith it would happen, or I don't think we would've kept going," Jeff says about Salisbury's resignation. "We take a lot of pride in keeping up this story."
Salisbury's ouster is a success, the Kremers say, but not the end.
"This was just a small part of our cause," Coleen says. "Our greatest concerns were for the animal escapes, the animal welfare and the public safety."
Those issues still remain, they say.
"We're supposed to believe as a public that it's all said and done?" Jeff says. "You leave the same people in charge, the same people under Lex, and we're supposed to just believe that?"
In a press release announcing Salisbury's resignation, Lowry Park Zoo Board Chairman Bob Merritt said the zoo board had already instituted "more rigorous procedures for oversight of zoo management" and are beginning an "in-depth review of zoo policies."
The city's representative on the zoo board, Santiago Corrada, says the board has only met once since Salisbury left and is still reviewing ways to make the zoo more accountable.
"There is a lot of increased interest from board members to do more things transparent than the past," he says.
The Kremers say transparency should be the first priority.
"We'd like to see animal audits published," Jeff says. "We'd like to see the board meetings public. Everything has to be transparent.
"You should not be afraid as an employee or taxpayer to ask questions," he continues. "Otherwise, it continues that culture of intimidation."