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Zoo story: Sex-power-status

Carnivore courtship. Songs in the slime. Stink wars. A secret wedding. A surprise birth. Bloodthirsty weasels. Sexual proposition. Primate politics. The boy who slept on the elephant. A death remembered. It's all happening at the zoo

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007


CHAPTER 5

That Thursday, the keepers in the Asia department bustle through their morning workload so they can get to the tiger sex.

It's March 25, 2004. In the glow just before sunrise, the keepers are already working. They feed the tapirs and the muntjacs and the babirusas. They slip a carrot to Naboo, the male Indian rhino, who's begging as usual. Then they collect his droppings and save them for Jamie, the zoo's young female rhino, so she can inhale Naboo's scent and get used to the possibility that someday they might be paired, too, when she's old enough and big enough that he won't kill her.

Before they shift Enshalla and Eric from their dens and into the exhibit, the keepers feed the two Sumatran tigers, so they won't be hungry and distracted when they're supposed to be mating. Then, while both tigers are inside eating, one keeper - Carie Peterson - goes into their exhibit and spritzes the rocks with tiny puffs of white gardenia body spray.

For Enshalla.

"Hey princess," Carie calls to her, making smoochy sounds.Once she's safely away, Carie lets Enshalla into the exhibit. Behind her, from his den, Eric is roaring.

Carie smiles.

"He wants her so bad."

- - - 

The dance begins at precisely 9:54 a.m.

On cue, the door from the night house opens again, and Eric steps into the bright light of the new day. Enshalla, walking by the edge of the pool, goes to him immediately and rubs her body against his. She all but purrs. Then she walks away.

"Wow," Carie says.

"Oh, God," says another keeper.

The two of them are watching from the dusty crawl space beneath the boardwalk that winds above the exhibit. They are roughly 20 feet from the tigers, protected by the pond and a wall of thick netting. Cobwebs dangle inches above their hair. On the ground beside them, a fire hose gurgles. They don't want to use it. But they also remember that Enshalla's father killed her mother, in this exhibit.

Across the pond, a pattern is forming. Enshalla rubs against Eric again, then runs away again. Eric slumps to the ground.

Enshalla attempts to reclaim his attention, rolling on her back and raising her paws into the air. She crouches and crawls toward the young male. Somehow, she looks coquettish. Eric sniffs the nape of Enshalla's neck. Enshalla lowers herself and raises her hindquarters.

The two keepers hold their breath. This might be it. When tigers mate, the female typically raises her behind - she "presents," is how the keepers put it - and then the male bites onto the back of the female's neck and holds her down.

Abruptly, Enshalla slips away. Soon she is running around the exhibit, with Eric following.

A small bird - maybe a grackle - lands nearby. Normally the tigers make a quick snack out of birds that enter their exhibit. But they're distracted. Still, Eric stops his pursuit to consider whether he should pounce.

Carie can't believe it.

"You've got an inexperienced male and a bitchy woman who doesn't know what she wants - and then there's this bird!"

She blows her bangs out of her face. From where she's sitting, she can hear the lorikeets, chattering. From the next section of the zoo comes the unmistakable sound of Cyrus and Nadir, the zoo's siamang couple, singing another thundering duet from on high to declare their bond.

The keeper beside Carie leaves for other duties. Other keepers appear, bending low as they make their way through the crawl space to check the tigers' progress. One is Dustin Smith, the assistant curator in charge of the herps department. Dustin's a quintessential non-bunnyhugger who lives to torment Carie over how much she pampers her animals. This morning, he asked if she was planning to light candles in the tiger exhibit, to set a romantic mood.

Carie scratches through the dirt, looking for a cockroach to throw. At the zoo, everyone knows Dustin doesn't like roaches, even though he works with millipedes and giant spiders.

"I hear you guys used to keep tortoises back here," says Dustin, surveying the cramped possibilities of the crawl space. "I'm going to steal your area."

Carie thinks he's joking. Dustin's crazy about turtles. He's always trying to find new corners of the zoo where he can show off more of them to the public. It's his answer to almost any question: Add more turtles.

After he leaves, Carie shakes her head in mock dismay.

"Freak."

The dance continues. Enshalla is no longer attacking Eric, as she has in the past. She resorts to more subtle resistance, leading him in circles, then stopping to present and invite him to climb on top of her. At the last second, every time, she flees.

Carie calls out advice. She tells the tigers not to give up. She does everything but play Barry White.

"Sweetie," she tells Enshalla, "you just need to relax."

"Eric," she says, "you need to be forceful with her. She wants you to be forceful with her."

On the boardwalk immediately above her head, children are roaring. They don't seem to know adults can hear them.

"Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"

Carie sighs.

"I don't want kids."

Sometimes she's amazed at how visitors act. She sees them pounding on the picture window in front of Enshalla, or trying to throw things at the tigers.

"The human exhibit," she calls it.

Directly in front of the window, Enshalla has just presented yet again and is about to wriggle from underneath the male. Finally Eric has had enough. He growls, clamps his jaws onto her neck and holds her down as he mounts her.

Several young children stand wide-eyed at the window. Their mothers shake their heads.

Only 10 or 15 seconds after he bites Enshalla's neck, Eric jumps off. This is to be expected. Tiger sex tends to be rapid-fire and frequent; in the wild, Carie explains, they can mate dozens of times a day. There's no way to know yet if Eric reached his intended target. Still, the keepers are pleased that Enshalla let him try.

"She did it," Carie says. "She really did it."

Enshalla appears triumphant as well. After Eric walks away, she stretches, her tail waving back and forth. A few minutes later, she's up and rubbing on Eric.

She's ready for more.

- - - 

At Lowry Park, the spring of 2004 is beyond hectic.

The primate department is dealing with a new baby colobus monkey - an unexpected arrival. The staff had no idea any of the females were pregnant. Kevin McKay walked by the colobus enclosure, and everything was normal. A few minutes later he passed by again, and there was a newborn male, still connected to his mother by the umbilical cord.

One morning that spring, Kevin and others clean the moat around the lemur exhibit. The night before, the water was drained. Now, in their boots, they rake and shovel and hose the wet green muck. They pull out orange peels and corn cobs and a blue racquetball and a Twix wrapper and a party horn, like someone would blow on New Year's. Oh, and coins.

"We're doing pretty good," says Andrea Schuch, another primate keeper. "I think we have 76 cents."

They are sweating. They are trying not to touch their faces with their encrusted hands, and not to inhale any whiffs of the ooze that surrounds them. Lemurs are dirty. The males battle in stink wars, rubbing their tails onto scent glands on their arms, then waving the foul-smelling tails at each other.

Cleaning the lemur moat is a thankless task. So why are the keepers laughing and wearing Mardi Gras beads? Why is Kevin reciting an entire scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Why is another staffer, a woman covered in slime, singing a snippet from West Side Story?

"I feel pretty, oh so pretty! I feel pretty and witty and bright!"

They have to make it fun. How else could they keep going? They work from dawn to dusk for a pittance. In 2004, a starting keeper at Lowry Park makes $7.50 an hour. They would do almost as well pushing Big Macs at the McDonald's near the front gate.

It's true, they get to work with animals - a passion for virtually all of them since childhood. Still, the job grinds people up. Most keepers arrive at Lowry Park in their 20s, then move on before their credit card balances spiral out of control. The zoo has no trouble hiring replacements. Other animal lovers are always clamoring for a job.

Holding a baby chimp, releasing a manatee into freedom - these things are both rewarding and thrilling. But the routine is back-breaking. All day long, the keepers shovel and rake and push wheelbarrows of dirt and hay and excrement. Sometimes the animals spit and throw things at them. The human visitors mock them. When the keepers haul another load of droppings, people will point and use them as a lesson for their kids.

"This is why you need to go to college," the parents say.

On top of everything else, the work is dangerous. In case anyone at Lowry Park should forget, a wall of the keepers' break room is adorned with a memorial to Char-Lee Torre.

- - - 

Char-Lee worked at Lowry Park in the early '90s, not long after the new zoo opened. Like so many keepers, she had grown up with animals, constantly rescuing cormorants and turtles and iguanas. When one of her animals died, she would preside over their funerals in the back yard. A graduate of Boca Ciega High School in Pinellas County, she had just received a degree in education from the University of South Florida. She was interested in conservation. She was thinking about going back to school for another degree.

"The night before she died," remembers her mother, Cheryl Pejack, "we were talking about her getting a bachelor's degree in zoology."

Char-Lee wanted to be the curator of a zoo. But at 24, she knew she had to prove herself. At Lowry Park, she had begun working with Tillie, an Asian elephant who had spent most of her life in captivity at various institutions. At Lowry Park, she performed shows for the visitors and appeared in TV commercials for Bob's Carpet Mart. In the commercials, the elephant walked across carpet to prove the fabric's toughness.

At the time, trainers at Lowry Park routinely worked side by side with the elephants, within the same enclosure. Free contact, as it was called, was risky. An average of one elephant keeper was killed a year in the United States.

In order to survive, the keeper had to become a part of the herd and maintain dominance. As elephants maneuvered for position in the hierarchy, they would push or bump their human keepers.

In the summer of '93, Char-Lee Torre had been working with Tillie for a few months. That June, as the trainer guided her through a show, the cow shoved her into the hip-deep water of the exhibit's pond.

"No," Char-Lee said, managing to keep her balance.

In conversations with her family, Char-Lee did her best not to worry them, especially her mother, who was terrified about her daughter working with elephants. Char-Lee weighed only 105 pounds. Her mother could tell that she was anxious about Tillie, too. Cheryl remembers asking her daughter, one night late that July, what she would do if one of the elephants attacked.

"Are there guns there?" Cheryl said. "Is there a place you can hide yourself?"

Char-Lee said she would do what she could. When her little brother asked about her safety, Char-Lee talked about a knife she carried on her belt at the zoo. If one of the elephants came after her, she said, she'd use it to defend herself.

Her mother couldn't believe it. A knife?

"What's that going to do?" Cheryl said.

Char-Lee told her mom not to worry. She told her she felt privileged to be working with such magnificent creatures.

The next morning, July 30, Tillie attacked. Char-Lee was in the barn with the elephant, getting ready to lead her outside, when Tillie knocked the trainer to the ground and began to kick her. Char-Lee tried to crawl to safety, but the animal repeatedly dragged her back with her trunk.

By the time Tillie was stopped, Char-Lee's torso and lungs were severely injured. As she waited for the helicopter to fly her to St. Joseph's Hospital, she was still conscious. She said she couldn't breathe. She asked about Tillie.

"Don't hurt the elephant," she said.

By the time her family reached the hospital, Char-Lee had died. She was carrying the knife she'd talked about with her little brother. In her wallet, her family found a folded piece of paper with several lines of verse copied in Char-Lee's cursive. The paper was yellowed; she had been keeping it for some time.

Mourn not for us, for we have seen the light . . .
Grieve but for those who go alone, unwise, to die in darkness . . .

- - - 

Photos of Char-Lee Torre still hang in the break room. One shows her with the two elephants she trained, including the one that would kill her. In the photo, Char-Lee is smiling. Tillie towers beside her.

Tillie and the other elephant are gone now. Shortly after Char-Lee's death, Lowry Park decided it did not want to risk another attack. Tillie was shipped to a breeding farm in North Florida. The only other elephant at Lowry Park was sent to another zoo.

A decade later, as the zoo prepares to exhibit elephants again, Char-Lee's death lingers in the minds of the staff and management. To make sure the new elephant keepers stay safe, the zoo has adopted a protocol known as protected contact.

Increasingly used by zoos around the country, protected contact does not allow keepers to enter an enclosure with an elephant. They always maintain some barrier. That's why the keepers at Lowry Park rely so heavily on the Elephant Restraint Device, which allows humans to get close without getting hurt.

Brian French grew up with free contact, first training with elephants as a child and then later at Ringling Bros. Sometimes he misses that intimacy. But when he came to Lowry Park, he understood the zoo's insistence on the new protocol.

By now, Brian recognizes the way each of the zoo's elephants moves, the way they think, the different sounds they make when they're hungry or irritated. He doesn't have to see their faces anymore to know who's who.

"I can tell 'em apart," he says, "even by looking at their legs."

Msholo and Sdudla, the two bulls, have been battling for power since they arrived from Swaziland. In the yards, the males butt heads to impress the females. In elephant herds, only the dominant male has breeding privileges. Now Lowry Park's bulls are vying to see who'll end up mating with the females. Originally, Sdudla was dominant, but then one day he pushed the other male too far. They got into a brawl. Msholo stood up for himself.

Ellie is slowly gaining the confidence to become the group's matriarch. It hasn't been easy. At first, she quavered at the approach of the other elephants. They would smell her with their trunks. She'd get scared and run away.

Her keepers are waiting to see if the artificial insemination recently performed by the Berlin vets was successful. If Ellie's carrying a calf, that could solidify her position as well.

As the keepers prepare for the grand opening of Safari Africa on May 28, they're watching to see how the elephants handle themselves in the open. They notice that Ellie grows nervous if a grasshopper lands near her feet. If she hears a truck driving by, she's fine; the sound of a tractor, though, sets her on edge. They see her looking out for Matjeka. When little Mbali is aggressive with Matjeka, Ellie steps in, feeling protective.

The elephants are always learning. One day, Brian sees Msholo weaving his trunk between the electric wires - hot wires, they're called - that run along the edge of the yards. The bull is reaching toward a small live oak tree, planted at what everyone had thought to be a safe distance. Brian immediately has the tree removed. If the bull had uprooted it, he could have pulled the oak through the hot wires, shorting them out and possibly even opening a hole. This hole would have only led him to another barrier; a thicker fence, made of cables, waited just beyond. Still, Msholo's reach for the tree reminds the staff just how closely they have to keep an eye on the elephants.

"They're so smart," says Brian. "They're tool users."

True to their reputation, the elephants have amazing memory. One of the other keepers, Steve Lefave, used to work with Ellie when she was at the Gulf Breeze zoo. Years later, when he came to see her again in Knoxville, she recognized him instantly and came running up.

Their vocabulary skills are equally impressive. Many elephants, accustomed to their trainers' commands, understand dozens of words and sometimes appear to follow entire sentences. Circus elephants often work with trainers of different nationalities. Brian French says he has known at least one elephant who could recognize commands in four languages: English, German, French and Hindi.

After a lifetime of working with elephants, Brian dreams about them at night. In the dreams, he's a boy again, training the elephants and preparing to ride them in the ring. Sometimes he sees himself with Shirley, one of his family's elephants.

"Shirley was my best friend," says Brian. "She was my elephant."

When he was only 3 or 4, Shirley would raise him up with her trunk, and he would climb onto her head and then wrap himself around her neck. Against his face, she felt warm; his body moved up and down with the rise and fall of her breathing. Often, he would nod off.

"Some kids ride in cars and they fall asleep right away. For me it was elephants."

In the dreams, Brian returns to Shirley and the other elephants he used to ride. He remembers what it meant to be so small and to be lifted onto their great sloping backs. To sit on high with a child's hands touching their thick gray skin as they carried him forward.

All that power, fluid and effortless, rippling underneath.

- - - 

Another morning with the chimps. Another sexual request from Herman.

He's in his den in the night house. He wants one of his favorite keepers, Andrea Schuch, to show him a little skin. Nothing too explicit. Just a glimpse of her shoulder.

Andrea knows Herman has no control over these impulses. As far as she's concerned, it costs her nothing to make him happy.

"Then we go on with our lives," she says.

How many human females express similar sentiments about their husbands? Just let him have what he wants, and everyone can continue with their day.

Only Herman is not human. And not all the female primate keepers are comfortable being regarded as a sex object by a chimp. They adore Herman. But please. There are limits.

"It makes me crazy," another keeper tells Andrea. This other keeper is blond. Herman has a special thing for blonds.

Andrea smiles. "It is a little crazy," she admits.

The other keeper says she ignores Herman's requests.

"I don't like to encourage that kind of behavior."

Lee Ann Rottman, who has known Herman longer than any of the keepers, does not make a big deal of Herman's quirks. Of all the animals in the zoo, the curator loves Herman the most. She admires his kindness. She notices how he watches out for the others in his group - his acceptance of the lowly Bamboo, the way he puts up with the brattish behavior of Alex, the adolescent.

"Herman," says Lee Ann, "is a gentle soul."

At the end of a hard day, she sits in the night house and pours her heart out to him.

"If I could meet a man like Herman," she says, "I would marry him."

Sometimes, the chimp bristles at human males, especially if they put a hand on the shoulder of a female keeper - or if he perceives them to be alphas. He recognizes a powerful man when he sees one.

Years ago, when Jane Goodall visited Lowry Park, she talked about Herman's reaction to human alphas.

"He wants to be the boss," the famed researcher explained. "He doesn't want you to be the boss."

Despite Herman's occasional blustering, he has a relatively benign temperament for a chimp. If anything, he is too nice. He has never had to claw for position among a group of rivals in the violent and ever-shifting power struggles at the heart of chimpanzee politics.

Years ago, Lowry Park introduced another male named Chester into the chimp group. Sensing vulnerability, Chester eventually toppled Herman, pummeling and biting him. Even after Herman conceded, Chester would sometimes chase and slap the other chimps, just to maintain his dominance.

A counter coup was out of the question. After being raised by his human family and then ruling at Lowry Park unchallenged for so long, Herman had no combat experience to fall back on. The primate staff didn't want to interfere; they thought it best to let the chimps work out the power shift in their own way, provided the situation didn't get out of hand. Sometimes, when tensions between Herman and Chester grew high, the keepers would separate the two males, hoping to calm them. But the physical domination continued.

A year or so later, Chester was sent to another zoo, not because he'd seized power, but because he showed a talent for climbing up the exhibit wall and eluding the electrical wire. The staff feared he might escape and hurt someone.

Lee Ann thinks back to that time and how painful it was for Herman. Not just because he'd been overthrown but because he couldn't defend himself or the other chimps. Powerless to stop Chester from picking on the females, Herman showed signs of confusion. He grinned with his mouth open - a chimp signal for fear.

"He didn't know what to do," Lee Ann says. "He would be very scared."

Sometimes, when Chester was coming after him or one of the other chimps, Herman would turn to any keepers who happened to be nearby and reach his hand toward them.

For a chimp who identified so closely with humans, the woeful gesture must have made sense. He had no way of comprehending the keepers' reluctance to intervene. All he knew, from decades at the zoo, was that people were his friends. Surely they would save him. Surely they would help him protect the others.

- - - 

From his perch, Herman watches the approach of the tall man with the light hair and ruddy skin.

Herman doesn't know the man's name, but he recognizes him. After many years together at the zoo, the chimp has had plenty of chances to study this male, to notice the easy confidence in his bearing and the way other humans attend to his every word, paying him deference and respect.

If the tall man lingers in front of the chimp exhibit, Herman rocks back and forth and pounds his chest. He wants the human to know who's really in charge.

Maybe it would be best to move along, says Lex Salisbury, the object of Herman's aggression.

Lowry Park's CEO does not appear to take offense at Herman's displays. He understands that Herman, like all chimps, is attuned to status and power differentials, the nonverbal clues that signal who's at the top of any primate hierarchy.

Besides, Lex hardly needs to prove himself to a chimp. Everyone knows he is the zoo's true alpha. Herman may be animal number 00001, but in the zoo's hierarchy of walkie-talkie ID numbers, Lex is simply known as 1.

Walk through the zoo with Lex, and he'll point out the sarus cranes and talk about how they mate for life. Moving past the river otter exhibit, he describes them as aquatic weasels.

"Bloodthirsty little things," he says.

In every corner of the zoo, he can identify every bird and every gecko and charm you with a catalog of details and observations about every species. He talks about the pregnant male sea horses, and the underwater tunnels favored by the moray eels, and how the green tree python hunts for birds by sensing the heat of their bodies, and how the poison dart frogs aren't actually poisonous here at the zoo, because their diet is different from what they eat in the wild.

Stopping in front of the manatee pools, he explains how manatees sport vestigial nails on their fins.

"Indicative of a terrestrial past."

The vestigial nails observation leads him to whales - of which there are none at Lowry Park - and how they happen to have vestigial pelvises.

"They do an 80 percent air exchange," he says casually.

You have no idea what that means. You're not even sure which species Lex is talking about now - you're still trying to picture a vestigial pelvis - but there's no time to find out, because the man is already moving on to another continent of exhibits and tossing out a stream of additional animal facts. He's 45, but carries himself with the energy of someone at least a decade younger. He lives on a ranch in Lacoochee, stocked with zebras and warthogs and other exotic species, many of whom will one day end up at the zoo.

Lex will tell you about his upbringing - his childhood in Alaska, his university days in Sydney, Australia, his master's thesis on heat exchange rates in parrots from New Zealand. But ask about his life outside the zoo today - or ask for a tour of his ranch - and he gently steers the conversation in other directions.

His desire for privacy is understandable enough. What's striking is the velvet ease of his deflection. Early this month, on March 4, he got married again. Almost no one at the zoo has heard a word.

At this point in his career, Lex is as much a politician as anything else. As such he devotes himself to the habits and behavior of his fellow homo sapiens, especially those with the money and connections to help him take Lowry Park into the future. The job is built on grace, discretion, politesse.

"It's a different skill set," he says.

He has to know how to woo the Tampa City Council. He has to be comfortable chatting with mayors and governors. At cocktail parties he must be ready to talk about manatees and meerkats with wealthy matrons who can endow another addition to the zoo. Negotiating the purchase of the four elephants from Africa, he had to comport himself favorably in the exalted presence of the Swazi king, Mswati III, whose permission was essential.

From the Swazi court to the Hillsborough County Commission, Lex excels as an alpha who must win over other alphas without seeming to challenge their authority. Surely the degree in social anthropology must help. Also his sense of mission, and the encyclopedia of species inside his head.

Animals, Lex knows, are his best marketing tools. Beyond guile, incapable of acting, the creatures prove irresistible in the jaded halls of power. That's why Lex carries Ivan, the Eurasian eagle owl, on his gloved hand before the Florida Senate. It's why he makes sure baby alligators and prehensile skinks and screech owls are on display every spring as bejeweled guests arrive at Karamu, the zoo's annual black-tie fundraiser.

Perhaps most crucial of all is Lex's relentless evangelism for what zoos can mean to the future of the planet. He is fervent about the promise of Lowry Park as a refuge for endangered species.

"A zoo can be a stationary ark," he says. "It can be more than entertainment."

These sermons don't always play well among the minions who toil beneath him. He is unquestionably the alpha. That doesn't mean he's always loved.

The staff often hears Lex bragging about Lowry Park's fiscal self-sufficiency. Most U.S. zoos, he points out, receive about 40 percent of their funding from tax dollars. Lowry Park, he says, relies on public funds for only 3 percent. To make ends meet, Lowry Park has to get the most out of every dollar and operate as efficiently as possible.

The keepers value self-reliance, too. But a good portion of them work for a couple of dollars an hour more than minimum wage, while Lex's salary for this fiscal year will top $200,000 - more than what the city of Tampa pays its mayor. Why, the keepers wonder, should they get such a small slice of the pie, when their CEO's plate is overflowing?

These complaints are almost always whispered. And for good reason.

Outside the zoo, Lex's style is polished, understated, seductive. Inside, he is demanding and not to be crossed. When his staff excels, he is ready to reward them with promotions and raises. But if someone displeases him, he does not hesitate to say so. He punishes. He exiles. Employees who differ with him have a way of leaving the zoo quietly under vaguely described circumstances.

Compared with Herman, Lex is a much more aggressive and savvy leader. He understands that being nice is not necessarily part of an alpha's job.

Lex is responsible for approximately 240 employees and 1,600 animals. He makes no apologies for his high expectations. He recognizes that not everyone likes his style. Too bad. If staff members don't agree with the way he runs the zoo, he says, then they should probably look for a new job.

"Because I'm not going to leave," he says. "It's not a democracy. It's a benevolent dictatorship."

Lex accepts that his decision to bring the four elephants from Africa plunged the zoo into an international controversy. He wants Lowry Park to be at the forefront of the zoo world. If that means stirring things up, so be it. He despises inertia. He has strategic plans, blueprints hanging in his office.

He looks into the future and sees the zoo's handful of elephants growing into a breeding herd. They'll require more room. Maybe in Pasco.

"In five years, we're going to need to have them on 50 acres or more," he says. "You can't have the biggest vertebrates in the world in a city park."

Lex makes this last statement on March 3, 2004, during a lengthy interview in his office that covers his childhood, his parents, his mentors over the decades, his 16-year-old son, Alex. Throughout the conversation he seems open and relaxed.

He never breathes a word that his wedding will be the very next day.

- - - 

When he returns to work, Lex will be standing in another ceremony. This one will be as public as it gets.

Safari Africa, the child of his hopes and energies and years of orchestration on two continents, is about to be unveiled.

Lex has gambled a great deal on this. He has courted the fury of PETA, faced down the lawyers and bureaucrats, seen his name decried by animal lovers around the world, all to bring the elephants from the African savannah to the center stage of his zoo.

This is his moment. The test.

- - - 

 

About the series

Over the past four years, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Thomas French and staff photographer Stefanie Boyar chronicled life inside Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. With the zoo's permission, they followed the keepers and the animals, interviewing everyone from the volunteers to the zoo's CEO.

Most of the events described in the series are based on firsthand reporting, including today's opening scene with the tapirs and the rhino and the scene showing the keepers cleaning the lemur moat. French and Boyar were both under the boardwalk with Lowry Park keepers for the scene detailing the tiger courtship and mating.

The depiction of the colobus monkey birth is based on interviews with Kevin McKay, Andrea Schuch and Lee Ann Rottman. The description of keepers' lives and their salaries is based on interviews with numerous keepers and staff members. The account of Char-Lee Torre's death is based on news reports and on interviews with Lex Salisbury and with Torre's family.

The section on the changes in the zoo's procedures with elephants, and on how the new elephants are adjusting to captivity, is based on firsthand reporting and on interviews with Brian French and Steve Lefave. The details on Herman the chimp's obsession with human females is based on firsthand reporting and interviews with Andrea Schuch, Lee Ann Rottman, various primate keepers at Lowry Park, and Ed and Roger Schultz.

The section on Lex Salisbury is based on firsthand reporting, as Thomas French - no relation to the elephant keeper - followed the CEO through the zoo and at a meeting of the Tampa City Council. The section is also based on interviews with Salisbury and current and former Lowry Park staff.

Thomas French can be reached at french@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486.