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Lowry zoo fires man who left door unlocked

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommends a criminal charge against the newer zookeeper.

Published August 26, 2006

TAMPA - Lowry Park Zoo officials on Friday fired a zookeeper who left a door unlocked, allowing the escape of a Sumatran tiger that later was shot to death.

The man, whose name had not been released, was fired after an internal review, according to a statement released Friday evening by the zoo.

"The zoo's staff members have been through an extremely difficult and emotional week following Enshalla's death," wrote Lex Salisbury, the zoo's president. "Our priorities must be to get back to the business of operating the zoo, helping our staff through this period and focusing on our animal collection."

Salisbury called the loss of Enshalla the tiger extremely traumatic.

Just before closing Tuesday, 14-year-old Enshalla slipped through an unlocked zookeeper's access door in the tiger's night house. She roamed freely about the empty Asian Domain exhibit as zoo officials herded the zoo's remaining visitors into restaurants and other secure buildings.

Salisbury shot and killed Enshalla after a failed attempt by a veterinarian to calm the animal with a tranquilizer dart.

Federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, were investigating the incident. The wildlife commission said it will recommend that a criminal charge be filed against the zookeeper.

Zoo staff members declined to comment further on the matter, other than to say that the zoo has "extensive emergency plans in place, conducts frequent drills to help manage the rare event of an animal emergency and receives regular weapons training," according to the statement.

"In 20 years at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, this type of situation has never arisen with a dangerous animal," the statement says.

The fired zookeeper had worked at the zoo for a month. He is a graduate of Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. Zoo officials said the zookeeper had excellent references from the college. Without the man's name, his attendance could not be confirmed, college officials said.

He also worked for a few months at the Lubee Bat Conservancy, where he handled fruit bats. Allyson Walsh, the organization's director, confirmed that the man worked there. He was a temporary employee hired to fill in for an ill worker, she said.

The man did a fine job at Lubee, Walsh said.

On Wednesday evening, wildlife commission Lt. Steve De Lacure and the zoo's general curator, Lee Ann Rottman, met with the zookeeper at the man's home, De Lacure said. The man gave the investigator a sworn written statement about the incident.

After the meeting, De Lacure said he will recommend that prosecutors charge the zookeeper with unsafe handling of captive wildlife or unsafe housing that leads to escape, a misdemeanor punishable by as much as three months in jail and a $500 fine.

The charge is typically applied to people who keep exotic pets at their homes, such as former NBA player Matt Geiger, whose 2,000-pound bison roamed north Pinellas County for two days in 2002. In Geiger's case, the charge was dropped.

De Lacure called the Lowry Park Zoo tiger's escape human error.

"I don't think it was intentional," he said.

The zookeeper told him that the door latch didn't get closed, De Lacure said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 20:15:40]

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