As tiger leapt, zoo director had no doubt

Lex Salisbury says he acquired his business-like, take-charge style growing up in Alaska.

Published August 25, 2006

TAMPA - By now, most everyone has heard the story. A tiger got loose at Lowry Park Zoo and made a sudden jump toward a veterinarian. The head of the zoo shot and killed it.

It was a dramatic and tragic moment that seemed quite peculiar to those outside the zoo's yellow gates. Lex Salisbury, the zoo's president and chief executive, took the shot. He oversees the zoo, named the nation's top family-friendly zoo in 2004 by Child magazine.

He is ultimately responsible for Lowry Park's 1,600 animals, nearly 1-million visitors a year and a $12-million budget.

The zoo pays him at least $266,523 a year, according to the zoo's most recent publicly available income tax return. But he doesn't wear a suit.

He seems to look as blue collar as the long-sleeve blue shirts he often wears with casual slip-on shoes that look both rugged and relaxed. He grew up in Alaska unafraid of the grizzlies, scaring them away by sticking a cowbell on his backpack.

Before he was called back to the zoo Tuesday on a "Code 1 Tiger" call, Salisbury was headed to his Dade City ranch in a Ford F-350 hauling a horse trailer. Inside, an orphaned Dexter cow calf was going home to Salisbury's 50-acre ranch, a menagerie of exotic and domestic animals.

His love for animals began in Alaska, where he says he developed his straight-shooting, demanding leadership style. Nature is valued there, but survival is more important. Alaskans, he says, are take-charge sort of people.

"They have to be, or they won't survive," he said.

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Salisbury, 48, can't really say what drew him to animals. All he knows is that he has liked them since he was young. He owned pet gerbils and a raccoon. His mother disliked the musky smell of mice, but he was allowed a de-scented pet skunk.

At 18, Salisbury moved to Australia, where he lived for seven years. He volunteered at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where he fell in love with birds. Years later, he named his son, Alex, now 18, after sanctuary founder Alex Griffiths.

Salisbury majored in social anthropology at the University of Sydney, focusing on animal behavior, primates and social organization among animals. He began his master's education in environmental science at Griffith University in Brisbane. He finished his degree work at the University of Florida, where he tested the metabolic rates of red and yellow-fronted Kakarikis - parrots from New Zealand islands - and how they shed heat.

"He was always good with the birds," joked Ged Caddick, a former Lowry Park curator, referring to Salisbury's skill with women.

Before he worked for Salisbury, Caddick knew him in his 20s when both spent time at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust in the United Kingdom, where Salisbury trained.

He has always been a fun guy with "devilish tendencies," said Caddick, who called him "Lex Luther" in his younger days.

Salisbury came to the Lowry Park Zoo in 1986 as general curator, in charge of the animal collection. He helped oversee Lowry Park's $20-million transition from one of the Humane Society of the United States' 10 worst zoos into today's respected zoo.

He became president and chief executive in 1994.

"In the zoo business, he has really risen to the top," said Larry Killmar, deputy director of collections at the Zoological Society of San Diego.

He did so by taking risks, Killmar said. He partnered with the San Diego Zoo on importing 11 elephants from Swaziland, which wasn't easy. He imported rhinos by plane. He brought in shoebill storks, putting Lowry Park in the lofty company of Cincinnati and San Diego zoos.

"Few zoos do any importation," Killmar said. "He likes to get things done ... and he's not afraid to try things."

Salisbury is an avid collector who brings his passion home. At his Pasco ranch, he owns several African animals, some of which came from the San Diego Zoo. With Killmar, he hopes to some day create a zoo in Ethiopia.

"It's like his vocation is his hobby," Killmar said.

"For most people, it's baseball cards and pins," adds Caddick. "For Lex, it's animals."

But Carie Peterson, a former zookeeper who quit in July, said Salisbury's ranch seemed like a business venture, which is how she felt he ran the zoo. She called him a distant boss.

"I never saw him," she said. "No one really did."

Salisbury calls himself demanding. If you don't see him, it's probably because you're doing a good job, he said.

"The simple reality of this place is if you don't perform, you can't work here," he said.

He's also blunt. During news conferences, he didn't mince words when asked whether a zookeeper could be fired for not latching the tiger's cage: "You bet." He stressed the importance of putting big cats in a night house by saying if kids sneaked into the zoo and fell into an exhibit, they could get "eaten by tigers."

"There's no hidden agenda with me," he said.

He loves animal shows and watches the Discovery channel nonstop to the chagrin of his wife, he said. But he clearly values man over beast. He has shot and eaten a deer, owns a few guns and doesn't hire animal-lover types who dislike people.

He believes the zoo's mission is to build up employees and educate them about animals, while conserving them. He was distraught he killed a tiger he had seen being born at Lowry Park. But he is an optimist who sees things growing rather than dying. He does not focus on tragedies, even the greatest one that happened while he was at the zoo in 1993.

Tillie, an Asian elephant, attacked and killed 24-year-old Charlotte "Char-Lee" Torre of St. Petersburg as the trainer was leading the elephant out of a barn.

"You have to see the bigger picture of what you're trying to achieve," Salisbury said.

The 1993 tragedy weighed on his mind as he pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at the tiger, Enshalla, who stared him down from just 15 yards away. Salisbury stood just a few feet from a plaque erected for Torre.

"It's really hard to lose your staff, who you're responsible for," Salisbury said, recalling the feeling of the gun in his hand. "And that's how I felt."

An unlocked latch in a night house allowed the 180-pound Sumatran tiger to escape into an unsecured exhibit area where the cat was just a leap from public areas. Staff veterinarian David Murphy fired a dart into the cat's hindquarters, prompting it to jump toward him. Salisbury shot the cat in mid air, 4 feet from the animal doctor. He unloaded all three remaining slugs into the cat.

"There couldn't be any hesitation," he said.

It was a tough decision, but one Salisbury said he was glad to shoulder.

"He had the guts to be there with me," Murphy said.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or 813 226-3368.