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Zoo story: Dusk

Leviathans. Fatal error. First freedom. Dread. Theory of succession. Deluge. Silent forest. El Diablo Blanco. It's all happening at the zoo

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007


CHAPTER 9

Late that afternoon, the new keeper finds himself alone with the tigers.

Chris Lennon, 33 and only a month into his job, would normally have someone working nearby. But an accumulation of events has cleared out most of the experienced keepers in the Asia department. One has recently quit; another has been fired. The assistant curator who supervises the department was on duty earlier today, but she was called away when one of her children suffered an asthma attack at school.

Which leaves Chris on his own with Enshalla and Eric.

By 4:30, when it's almost closing time at Lowry Park, Chris is ready to feed the tigers and shift them from the exhibit into their dens in the night house. He places their dinner in separate dens, then pulls a lever that allows Enshalla to come in. As always, there's a barrier between him and the tiger.

When Chris walks past Enshalla's den, she leaps toward him against the thick mesh. Enshalla is aggressive, even for a tiger.

The keeper is standing in a little corridor, preparing to shift Eric from outside into his den, when something makes him turn around. A sound maybe.

First he sees a chunk of meat in the hall where it should not be. Then he sees Enshalla. She has left her den, passing through a door he has accidentally left unlatched. Now the tiger is loose, only a few feet away, and eyeing him.

If she wants to attack, there's no place for Chris to go. The only exit from where he's standing is a door that leads out into the exhibit, where Eric is still waiting to come inside. Chris is fortunate. Enshalla does not turn toward him. Instead, she keeps moving into another part of the building. Chris hurries to the end of the hall and throws shut the night house's mesh door, so Enshalla can't reach him if she changes her mind. He gets on his radio: "Code one tiger."

Enshalla walks calmly out of the building and into the sunlight. For the first time in her life, she is free.

- - - 

This is the moment the staff has prayed would never occur. It is also a crisis for which they have rehearsed for years.

Once the warning comes over the walkie-talkies, the zoo goes into emergency lockdown. By now it is about 4:45. The few visitors who remain are hurried to safety behind closed doors. The front gates are blocked off. The weapons team grabs rifles and shotguns.

From inside the night house, Chris Lennon tells them Enshalla has gone into an area that until recently was the home of Naboo, the male Indian rhino. Naboo has been moved because his exhibit is being remodeled.

Even over the radio, the distress in Chris' voice is obvious. He sounds shaky. But he is holding it together, reporting Enshalla's movements. He watches the tiger as she lingers in Naboo's former exhibit, a circle of sand and dirt ringed by a muddy moat filled with elephant grass.

Years ago, before Naboo arrived, this was the Asian elephant exhibit. The night house through which Enshalla walked was once the barn where Tillie the elephant killed Char-Lee Torre. The exhibit beyond, where Enshalla has wandered, is ringed by a deep moat. But the moat is not wide. It's designed to keep in elephants and rhinos, not animals that can leap.

Like a tiger.

Enshalla's position puts her close to the front gates, near the manatee fountain so popular with small children on warm August days like this one. Lowry Park has been lucky. If Enshalla had escaped earlier, when the zoo was more crowded, she could have easily cleared the moat and gone hunting among toddlers and their parents.

Even so, the weapons team has to keep Enshalla from heading into the rest of the zoo. Following the code one protocol for tigers, the team surrounds the area. An assistant curator climbs with his rifle to the top of the Komodo building. Someone else takes a position behind the tiger night house.

The protocol suggests the team first attempt to lure the tiger back into her den with food. But that's not likely to work this time. Enshalla doesn't appear hungry - she just walked past her food as she slipped out. Even so, she remains dangerous. If cornered, she is likely to defend herself.

Now all the team can do is wait for David Murphy, the zoo's vet, to arrive with his tranquilizer gun. Until then, they train their weapons on Enshalla. Most of the team's members have known the tiger for years. Several remember her as a cub.

Lex Salisbury, Lowry Park's CEO, has known Enshalla since she was born at the zoo 15 years before. Late that afternoon, when the tiger escapes, Lex is driving north on I-275 toward his Pasco County ranch. Then his cell phone rings.

"Come back right away. There's a code one tiger."

Lex turns his truck around. By the time he makes it back to the zoo, Murphy is ready with his darts. The rest of the weapons team has Enshalla in its sights. Every time she moves, rifles follow.

So far Enshalla has done nothing aggressive. She lies down for a few minutes, gets back up, chews grass, rests in the sun. She doesn't roar or growl. She's quiet.

When Lex returns to the zoo, he takes cover in a car parked on the sidewalk between Enshalla and the fountain. Inside are Lee Ann Rottman and a primate keeper armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. The team, meanwhile, is trying to decide on the best vantage point for Murphy to dart Enshalla.

They consider putting him on the zoo's skyride, a safe position, but too high and far away. They also consider having him climb to the top of the tiger night house, but they don't want Enshalla to see him and become agitated. Like many other animals at the zoo, Enshalla does not like Murphy because she associates him with the sting of a tranquilizer. Just recently, he has had to immobilize her to perform some tests to determine why she hasn't been getting pregnant.

"This cat hates me," Murphy tells Lex.

Tranquilizers don't always work instantly, as in the movies. Their effects depend on unpredictable variables - the animal's emotional state, the exact place the dart enters the body. Knocking out Enshalla will be dangerous.

Word of the code one is spreading. A guest, herded inside a building, has apparently called the media. Reporters are phoning. In the sky, a news helicopter hovers. The weapons team hopes the chopping sound will not set the tiger on edge.

Soon Enshalla is moving again. She walks to the edge of the exhibit, then jumps down into the tall elephant grass inside the moat, making it harder for the weapons team to see her. She has found the perfect place to disappear.

By now it's close to 6. Enshalla has been out for roughly an hour. Dusk will be falling soon. If the team is going to tranquilize the tiger, they better do it fast, or they might lose her in the darkness.

Murphy steps onto the boardwalk lining the exhibit, trying to stay out of the tiger's sight. Lex steps out of the car, armed with the shotgun, to cover the vet.

Enshalla is still in the moat. Unable to get his shot, Murphy climbs to the top of a platform draped with ivy - a platform where children once climbed onto the back of an elephant for rides. The platform is roughly 7 feet high, giving Murphy the angle he needs. He aims and fires. The dart hits Enshalla's neck.

The drugs don't knock her out. Instead Enshalla is enraged. She lunges toward the vet, clawing up the ivy. She's only a few feet away from Murphy when Lex fires.

Enshalla drops into the elephant grass. But she's still moving. Lex fires three more times.

Finally the tiger is still.

- - - 

That Tuesday evening, messages from friends at the zoo pour in to Carie Peterson's voice mail.

"I'm sorry. You need to watch the news," the callers say. Then they hang up.

Enshalla's former keeper has worried about the tiger ever since she quit the zoo a few weeks before. An animal lover since she was a girl, Carie now works with homeless animals at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. She thinks about Enshalla all the time. She's been having nightmares about her.

As Carie listens to the messages from her friends, she hears a strange urgency - a sound beneath the voices - that makes her anxious. But she doesn't know what to think. Finally, when her shift is over and she's driving home along Hillsborough Avenue, she phones a friend at the zoo.

"What's wrong?" Carie asks. "What happened?"

"I'll tell you," says the friend. "But you have to pull over first."

Carie stops the car on the shoulder, the sense of dread growing.

"What is it," she says. "Is Enshalla dead?"

The friend pauses, then says yes.

Carie begins to scream.

- - - 

Lowry Park is reeling from a one-two punch. The staff has already been struggling to come to grips with the loss of Herman, killed in an unlikely coup. Now, Enshalla has been gunned down in mid-lunge by the CEO.

The deluge begins. News conferences, tearful interviews, petitions for Lex Salisbury's firing. The furor grows when Lowry Park confirms that Chris Lennon is new to the zoo and has apparently never before worked with large carnivores. By all accounts, Chris is so devastated by Enshalla's death that he does not want to answer the phone. Lowry Park places him on leave, then fires him.

A state wildlife inspector recommends that he be charged with improper handling of captive wildlife, a misdemeanor. Ultimately, the Hillsborough County state attorney's office decides to not charge him, saying there's no evidence of criminal intent.

Lowry Park itself is reprimanded. The Tampa Police Department is frustrated that the zoo did not immediately call 911 to report the escape of a dangerous animal. An inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who visits the tiger night house after the shooting, finds the zoo's training and safety procedures were inadequate. The keeper's inexperience was a safety hazard, the inspector says. So is the policy which allowed one keeper, working alone, to shift dangerous animals. The inspector's report concludes:

Correct: Immediately.

Outside the zoo, the shooting sparks another round in the debate over the ethics of keeping animals captive. Some are incensed at the CEO, calling him "Wild West Lex." Others wonder why the staff didn't find another way to pacify the tiger. Couldn't someone have thrown a net?

Asked these questions, several current and former keepers from Lowry Park agree that the zoo did the only thing it could in an impossible situation. They talk about how long it can take tranquilizers to kick in, about how a net would not have been likely to contain an angry tiger's teeth or claws. Once Enshalla leaped, they agree that Lex had to pull the trigger.

"That's his only option," says Brian Czarnik.

Brian is the keeper who was fired from the Asia department not long before Enshalla's death. He is more critical of the events that led up to the tiger's escape. Like Carie Peterson, he believes the zoo has been stretched too thin for too long. To him, Enshalla's escape through a new keeper's mistake only proves it.

In interviews with the St. Petersburg Times and other news outlets, Brian catalogs his complaints. He doesn't understand why the zoo has only one staff veterinarian for approximately 1,800 animals - a question many others have asked as well. He believes Lex's constant push for expansion has worn people down and driven a wedge between the keepers and management. And he is critical of the zoo's eagerness to market the arrival of new baby animals such as Tamani, the elephant calf.

"If it's nice and fluffy," he says, "they'll use it."

Brian says he was fired because he spoke up about problems and pushed for change. Others, he says, have been dismissed after they protested some of what was happening. Even more have left on their own, creating a vacuum of experience in the staff.

At a news conference the day after Enshalla's death, Lex is asked about Brian Czarnik's firing.

"Our policy is not to go into employee matters," says the CEO. "But the guy was fired for good reason."

Still, Lex confirms that his reputation as a tough boss is well-deserved.

"I am demanding, and I want this place to be the very best. . . . If people don't perform they generally are unable to stay here."

Staring into the cameras, Lex maintains the calm exterior that has served him so well with mayors and governors and kings. A day after he faced an escaped tiger, he is more than ready to stare down a room full of reporters.

He says Lowry Park didn't report Enshalla's escape to Tampa police because the weapons team had the situation under control. He pledges that the zoo will call 911 more quickly, should such an emergency ever arise again. But his comments are far from apologetic.

"We don't call them unless we need them," he says. "We really don't want people storming in with guns who don't really understand animal behavior."

As for why he was the one to shoot the tiger, he explains that he saw it as his job. He didn't want somebody else to have to do it.

Enshalla's untimely death is sad, he acknowledges.

"The thing that makes us want to keep going on is that we feel like we have a moral purpose, that we're making a difference," he says. "And I think we are."

- - - 

The torrent of criticism against Lex does not stop. On the Internet, he is accused of murdering Enshalla.

Lee Ann Rottman, who was there the evening of the tiger's shooting, is stunned at the viciousness of the attacks. She saw Lex after he shot Enshalla. She knows how upset he was, how much it shook him. What was he supposed to do? she wonders. Just let Enshalla kill Dr. Murphy?

If anything, Lee Ann is grateful to Lex for taking on such an awful responsibility.

"Lex did us a favor," says Lee Ann. "This is his zoo, and he cares about this place, and he had to make a difficult decision."

- - - 

What almost no one notices, in the swirl of questions, is the way Lowry Park's history has circled back on itself.

Lex sees it.

Get him away from the TV lights and the cameras, and he will take you to the boardwalk above the rhino moat and show you exactly how he ended up shooting Enshalla. He is not boastful. He is not defensive.

Enshalla's death, he says, was the second most heartbreaking moment he has ever known at Lowry Park. The only thing worse was the morning in 1993 when the elephant killed Char-Lee Torre.

Both tragedies unfolded here, in this section of the zoo. When Lex fired at Enshalla, he was standing beside the plaque memorializing Torre's death. He points it out now. Not to linger on the coincidence. Just to note it.

In the years to come, as generations of new visitors stroll through this section of the zoo, they won't know that a keeper and an animal both died here. The exhibit is being remodeled; it won't look remotely the same. But the history will still roil underneath.

Two terrible days, 13 years apart, now twined together, framing everything in between.

Bamboodoes not understand where Herman has gone.

That summer, in the days after the fatal attack, the old male searches for his companion. When Herman cannot be found, Bamboo becomes despondent. He and the others seem unsure what to do next.

It is not clear who will emerge as the next alpha male. The primate keepers hold their breath, hoping it will not be young Alex. He's too immature. Since Herman's death, Alex has been stirring things up. He has even claimed Herman's throne, standing at the former alpha's perch beside the waterfall.

Bamboo doesn't try to knock Alex off the perch. He's content to sit on the rocks one level below. Still, as summer turns into fall, Bamboo accepts the role of alpha. Bamboo isn't as self-assured as Herman, but he seems willing to take charge. He even welcomes Sasha, the baby who has been slowly introduced into the group.

Those who loved Herman still try to decipher why he was overthrown by Bamboo, the lowest member of the hierarchy. They know something shifted. But what was the catalyst? Why would Bamboo go after Herman, who treated him with respect?

Lee Ann Rottman, who knows Lowry Park's chimps better than anyone, believes the answer lies with Rukiya, the matriarch and surrogate mother to Sasha and Alex.

Lee Ann thinks back to the earlier fight between Bamboo and Herman, not long before the fatal attack. She remembers Rukiya grooming Bamboo. She thinks about the many times she saw Rukiya and the other female chimps manipulating Herman and Bamboo, redirecting the males' aggression. Somehow, she believes, Rukiya quietly orchestrated the coup.

"I think Rukiya instigated," says Lee Ann. "I love her dearly. . . . But I think she had a very big hand in starting the fight."

To Lee Ann, it seems unlikely that Bamboo would have made a power grab on his own. She remembers how afraid and confused Bamboo seemed during the fatal attack. Lee Ann doesn't believe he meant to kill Herman. She's not even sure Bamboo knew what he was doing.

The question is, why would Rukiya have plotted against Herman? What was her motive?

Lee Ann believes Rukiya staged the coup to clear a path to power for her adopted son.

"Is she priming Alex?" she wonders.

Even if Lee Ann's theory is not correct - even if Rukiya had nothing to do with the attack - it's not hard to envision Alex assuming the throne permanently. Bamboo is old and weak and Alex is growing stronger by the day.

Outside the zoo, some have wondered if Bamboo should be punished for the attack. Didn't he murder Herman? Shouldn't he pay? Such questions forget that law and morality are human constructs. Among animals, there is no such thing as murder, or even right and wrong.

Herman is gone. Bamboo and the others remain. That is all.

- - - 

That fall, the battle between the zoo and its critics escalates.

More former staff members step forward with criticisms, including Jeff and Coleen Kremer. Jeff worked in security and visitor services; Coleen worked in the education department and then outreach. Both give interviews to the Times and other news organizations, saying they love Lowry Park but quit because they were frustrated with the zoo's direction.

The Kremers echo concerns that Lowry Park's staff is overworked and has become demoralized by Lex's aggressive management style and his constant push for expansion. They say Enshalla died because of these deficiencies, that she would never have escaped if the zoo hadn't driven away veteran keepers. They insist that the tiger was not the only serious code one.

Jeff, who worked as a security guard, reports that Tamani, the baby elephant, got loose twice during his shifts. To the Kremers and others, the incidents, combined with Enshalla's death, raise a serious question about how well the zoo is maintaining its growing animal population.

The Kremers are particularly concerned about several African penguins that Lowry Park has brought in for a new exhibit. The penguins, a warm-weather species from South Africa, have been held in a back area of the zoo while their exhibit is under construction. In the meantime, two of the penguins have died.

"You think this place is about education or the animals. You're dead wrong," says Jeff Kremer. "It's about one thing and one thing only: money."

To make sure their concerns are heard, the Kremers launch a Web site. TampasZooAdvocates.com, it's now called. They dedicate their site to the memory of Herman and Enshalla.

- - - 

The zoo fires back. Given a chance to respond to the critics, Lex Salisbury and other supervisors tackle the charges one by one.

They confirm that two of the African penguins died after they arrived at Lowry Park. Greg Stoppelmoor, the zoo's assistant curator for the aviary, who worked with this group of penguins for years in Dallas, says the birds both suffered from asper, a respiratory ailment common to the species. Their deaths, he says, had nothing to do with the move to Lowry Park.

Lee Ann Rottman and others confirm that on a couple of occasions Tamani has briefly slipped out through openings in the cable fence around one of the elephant yards. He never wandered far, says the zoo; usually he stayed within a few feet of his mother, on the other side of the fence.

Asked about maintenance issues in the animals' night houses, Lee Ann confirms that repair schedules were a bit hectic during the construction of Safari Africa. Since then, she says, the animal department has been given its own maintenance worker and has no problem keeping up with work requests. Either way, she points out, the zoo's facilities were always safe. She notes that the USDA inspection immediately after Enshalla's escape found no problems with the locks or latches or anything else in the tiger night house.

"The inspectors found nothing wrong with our facility," says Lee Ann. "The zoo was not in disrepair."

Lex Salisbury, meanwhile, does not buy the argument that Enshalla's death had anything to do with Lowry Park being overextended.

"We are not understaffed," he says. "Enshalla got out because of human error."

- - - 

Lex is unbowed.

In late September 2006, when Lowry Park co-hosts the annual convention of the AZA in Tampa, the zoo's CEO gives a speech summarizing the zoo's efforts on behalf of endangered species.

In front of an audience filled with zoo officials from around the country, Lex talks about how the Florida Legislature has designated Lowry Park as a refuge for the state's threatened species, recognizing its long-standing efforts to preserve whooping cranes and red wolves and Florida panthers and Key deer and Key Largo woodrats and, of course, manatees. Since the zoo's manatee hospital opened more than 15 years before, Lex points out, the staff has worked with 181 manatees and has returned 84 of them to the wild.

He talks about how the zoo is fighting for the preservation of 33 species managed by the AZA's species survival plans, including orangutans and Komodo dragons. He talks about the project to save the Panamanian golden frogs, and the zoo's financial support for chimpanzee research in the wilds of the Congo, and its contributions to the survival of black rhinos and other endangered species in the game parks of Swaziland.

"This," he says, "is what we should be doing."

As the applause rises around him, Lex beams. He shakes hands, accepts congratulations, waves to old friends. Barely a month after he shot Enshalla, he seems to have regained his equilibrium.

Now, and into the foreseeable future, the zoo is Lex's to rule. He'll take it in whatever direction he sees fit.

- - -

Another year has gone by since Lex's speech. Today, the debate over Lowry Park - and all zoos - rages on.

Four years after Lowry Park and the San Diego Wild Animal Park imported 11 elephants from Swaziland, PETA continues its campaign against the two zoos. On its Web site, the organization decries any zoo that keeps elephants in captivity.

The Kremers still post their critiques of Lowry Park. A couple of months ago, they arranged for a small billboard to go up on Busch Boulevard in tribute to Herman and Enshalla.

Lex Salisbury, deep into his second decade as Lowry Park's CEO, points out that zoos have been a part of human culture since ancient Mesopotamia. They aren't likely to go away anytime soon.

In the past five years, Lowry Park has become one of the fastest growing zoos in America. Annual attendance tops 1.2-million visitors. Lowry Park reports that it is the best-attended zoo in the southeastern United States.

The transformation that Lex has pushed for is a reality. When he arrived at the zoo in 1987, he says, Lowry Park had 32 animals. Today there are approximately 2,000, representing more than 300 species from around the world.

A spokesman for the AZA, the organization that accredits zoos, says Lowry Park's conservation program "puts them among the best in the country."

Plans for the zoo call for more growth, more animals, more ways to put visitors close to as many species as possible. In a move that proves his ambitions for the zoo have not dimmed, Lex has recently hired Larry Killmar, the deputy director of animal collections at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. Already, Killmar is talking about filling Lowry Park with more species, including gharial crocodiles, an endangered species from India.

The centerpiece in Lex's reinvention of Lowry Park remains its fledgling elephant herd. Elephants are now the zoo's official emblem. They appear on the cover of Lowry Park's annual reports, on the business cards, on the big sign out front that welcomes visitors.

In recent years, several zoos around the country - especially in northern cities such as Detroit and Chicago - have closed their elephant exhibits, citing concerns about the animals' well-being and the zoos' inability to provide them a suitable habitat.

In an online explanation for their decision, Detroit Zoo officials said they believed their elephants belonged in a warmer climate and that elephants would need, at a minimum, 10 to 20 acres to roam.

Without explicitly mentioning Lowry Park or San Diego, the Detroit officials questioned the practice of placing wild elephants in captivity.

It is unclear if the capture of wild elephants for exhibition in zoos is in fact a "rescue" if the elephants' needs cannot be met by the captive facility.

At Lowry Park, the warmer temperatures are well-suited to the elephants. But even Lex acknowledges that the zoo's growing herd will someday need more room. For now, he says, Lowry Park's elephants are doing well. Sdudla, one of the two bulls brought over from Swaziland, has been loaned to the Montgomery Zoo for breeding.

Ellie reigns as the matriarch of Lowry Park's herd. According to Steve Lefave, the new assistant curator for the Africa department, Ellie has proved to be an excellent mother to the herd's first calf. Tamani is now 2 years old and weighs 1,500 pounds. He still nurses, but spends much of his time outside in the care of his aunts, Mbali and Matjeka. He swims in the big pool and chases after guinea fowl.

- - - 

Lowry Park's conservation credentials are as strong as ever. The manatees still swim in front of the huge picture windows, surfacing like leviathans. The blue poison dart frogs and Panamanian golden frogs are still breeding to the wailing of Led Zeppelin.

Dustin Smith, who traveled to Panama to study the golden frogs - and who is now the father of three young sons - has moved on to the reptile department at Busch Gardens. Dan Costell, the hulking wrestler who once waged war with the bunnyhuggers, still works in that small room at Lowry Park, tenderly caring for the frogs, encouraging them to breed, helping them stem the tide of extinction.

Dan and others have also been working with another endangered amphibian species, the Puerto Rican Crested Toad. Just recently the toads have produced tadpoles. Some will stay at Lowry Park. Others will be reintroduced into the wild. A week and a half ago, the zoo sent 165 of the tadpoles back to Puerto Rico.

Even as the staff fights for threatened species and expands its animal collection, there are indications that Lowry Park is evolving into a hybrid of a zoo and a theme park, somewhat like Busch Gardens. Ten years ago, about the only ride at Lowry Park was a merry-go-round. Today, there's a skyride, and a pony trek, and an area where children can climb a rock wall and take spins in flying bananas.

A water flume is due to open in 2008.

- - - 

Like any institution, Lowry Park has the right to move in new directions and to seek new revenues. But sometimes, the line between entertainment and conservation gets fuzzy.

Like with the tigers.

Eric, the male Sumatran, still lives at Lowry Park. Now that Enshalla is dead, the zoo has no mate for Eric to breed with. Lowry Park officials say they've looked unsuccessfully for another female Sumatran to pair with him. Since they can't find one, they're talking about moving him to another zoo.

Until then, Eric is spending a fair amount of time confined inside the night house, because Lowry Park has brought in two white tigers who take turns with Eric sharing the exhibit. Things got even more crowded this past April when the female white tiger gave birth to three cubs. One was stillborn. The other two, now 8 months old and growing, love to wrestle and chase each other.

The white tigers are unquestionably beautiful. And there's no doubt that the public loves them. But they are also a genetic aberration, their coloring the result of a recessive gene. Even ardent supporters of zoos are scathing in their criticisms of institutions that exhibit white tigers. There's no conservation value, say these critics; the only reason for showing the species is that they're a moneymaker.

Lex Salisbury argues that the white tigers are more than deserving of the zoo's attention, that the increased revenues they bring in help fund the zoo's conservation efforts with manatees and other species. Besides, he says, there's nothing wrong with engaging the public with such captivating animals. Before you can educate people, he says, you have to get them through the front gates.

- - -

This much is undebatable:

Lex gets results. He sets his sights on something, and then finds a way to get it done. Even people who don't particularly like the man call him a visionary.

For those who work around him, Lex's vision often carries a heavy price. His demanding personality alienates some staffers and intimidates others. Talk to the exiles, the ones who have been cast out or who have walked away of their own accord, and they will tell you that Lex's incendiary reputation was sealed long ago, even before he became Lowry Park's CEO.

In the early '90s, when Lex was still the zoo's general curator, one of the groundskeepers - a Hispanic man - began calling him "El Diablo Blanco," a nickname that referred both to Lex's light blond hair and to his already controversial management style. According to the legend, this groundskeeper studied Lex's behavior in those early days and made the following pronouncement:

"One day, El Diablo Blanco will run this zoo."

The prediction was right. The nickname has stuck ever since. Among the zoo's exiles, Lex is still known as the White Devil.

- - - 

Lex responds to his critics with a story of his own. One day years ago, he says, he gave a tour of Lowry Park to George Steinbrenner. As they walked through the zoo, Lex says, the Yankees owner talked about how he was known as a sore loser.

"You show me someone who's a good loser," he remembers Steinbrenner saying, "and I'll show you a loser."

Lex smiles. He agrees with Steinbrenner.

"Damn right," says Lex. "I'm used to winning, and I don't like not winning."

The true alpha of Lowry Park is still standing, mapping the zoo's path into the future. He has survived every challenge and has outflanked the adversaries who have demanded his removal. He has shrugged off their attacks, slipped through their nets. As usual, he makes no apologies.

At the moment, Lex is planning something new. Something more audacious that will undoubtedly start more arguments. Nine months ago, he joined another partner - a veterinarian in St. Petersburg - and purchased 260 acres outside Lakeland. Now he is building a massive game park on that land, filled with sprawling pastures where zebras and waterbuck and African cattle already roam, where he hopes to bring in cheetah and giraffes and maybe even more elephants.

"I'd love to have elephants here," says Lex, giving a tour of the park just a week ago in his Land Rover.

Safari Wild, as the park will be called, is scheduled to open in 2009. Small tours in ground vehicles are planned, allowing a select number of visitors to get close to the wildlife. More animals are arriving nearly every day from other countries and from other institutions around the United States.

Lex says that he has signed a memorandum of understanding with the executive committee of Lowry Park's board of directors, pledging that the park's relationship with the zoo will be non-competitive. He says that surplus animals from the zoo will be welcome at the park. He says that he will not profit from any relationship between the zoo and the park, that care has been taken to guard against conflicts of interest. He and the executive committee are scheduled to discuss the project next month with Lowry Park's full board.

Safari Wild is just the interim step in Lex's strategic design. Within five years, he says, he plans for the zoo to have acquired an even bigger parcel, possibly as much as 2,000 acres, somewhere outside Tampa. He sees this larger game park - which would supplement the existing zoo - as the next stage in Lowry Park's evolution.

"We're not done," says Lex. "We're just getting started."

- - - 

Lee Ann Rottman remains a true believer. The zoo's curator still loves Lowry Park and believes in its mission. Criticisms of the zoo pain her deeply.

Even the zoo's toughest critics agree that Lee Ann is fiercely committed to giving Lowry Park's animals the best care possible. Time and again, they say, she has fought for more resources and better pay for the keepers. So when Lee Ann looks you in the eye and says Lowry Park is a good zoo, it's worth paying attention. Like many, she has spent years weighing the ethical implications that ripple through every hour of every day at Lowry Park.

She doesn't pretend to know every answer. She says that no zoo, however hard it tries, can ever resolve the paradox of treasuring wildlife even as it keeps those species captive.

"In a perfect world," she says, "we wouldn't have animals in captivity."

Lee Ann wishes she could free many of the animals at the zoo and send them out into the wild, as they do with the manatees. But for many species, there's not much wild left. Besides, after several stints in remote corners of Africa, studying chimps in the forest, she will tell you that nature does not play like a Disney movie. She saw animals dying of hunger, dying in droughts, in the teeth of predators, in the gunsights of humans who hunt them for bush meat.

"The wild," says Lee Ann, "is not all it's cracked up to be."

For most of the animals she works with, Lee Ann thinks the zoo is the best option left.

- - - 

Zoo officials like to describe their institutions as arks that provide refuge for endangered species. If that's true, then it's time to build more arks.

Around the world, many species are dying off at a rate even faster than the mass extinctions that erased so many dinosaurs 65-million years ago.

Global warming. The melting of the polar ice caps. The poisoning of the seas and skies. The fires burning through the Amazon. Millions of us, driving our children to school, driving to the grocery, driving to work.

For these and a hundred other reasons, many of the species at Lowry Park are on the brink of extinction in the wild. Some have already been pushed over the edge of that cliff.

In the forests of Panama, the golden frogs have all but vanished. None has been sighted in any of the breeding grounds that used to teem with their numbers, even inside the gorge the researchers called the Thousand-Frog Stream.

"There might be a few left out there, but I would say they are relics," says Kevin Zippel, the biologist who is leading efforts to save the golden frog and other amphibian species around the world. "They're on their way out."

That morning in January 2005, when Kevin and Dustin Smith and the other researchers climbed down into the gorge, was one of the last sightings of golden frogs in the wild.

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Even in Africa, time is running out.

Mick Reilly and his family are still watching over the elephants and the black rhinos and the lions and all the other species that have been given sanctuary inside the game parks of Swaziland. Mick's father, Ted, has been preserving the country's wildlife for four decades. Mick has been at his father's side, wading among the animals, since he could walk. There's a picture of him, standing in the bush as a toddler, staring down a rhino.

Mick is 36 now. All his life, he and his father have worked with the Swazi king to protect the animals. They have fought the politicians, the poachers, the killers who came into the parks in the early '90s and mowed down the rhinos with machine guns, then cut out their horns and left their carcasses bleeding in the dirt.

At Mkhaya, the park reserved for Swaziland's most endangered species, there are rows of great bleached skulls from those slaughtered rhinos. Bullet holes are still visible.

Spend an afternoon with Mick and Ted, riding in a Land Rover through the twisting trails of Mkhaya, and they will show you all that they have fought for, all that the rest of us are losing. Weaver nests, hanging from trees like paper sacks. Eagles turning in the blue dome of the sky.

Mick does not want to romanticize the savannah. He often hears tourists, wide-eyed, waxing on about the balance of nature.

"There's no such thing," says Mick, sitting at the wheel of the Land Rover. "There never has been. There's no balance, because it's always in a state of change."

Echoing Lee Ann's point, Mick talks about the swath that nature cuts through different animal populations, wiping them out with a drought or a flood or disease. Not to mention all the destruction wreaked by humans.

As he says these things, a herd of zebras gallops along the horizon behind him, followed by a herd of wildebeest.

"Nature," says Mick, quoting his father, "plays no favorites."

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Today, four years after the 11 elephants were sent to San Diego and Tampa, the herds they left behind still threaten to overrun the game parks of Swaziland.

More calves have been born. Poachers have been kept away. There are now 38 elephants in the parks - almost the same number here in 2003, when the 11 were sent to the United States. As before, the herds are tearing down almost every tree in sight.

The Reillys are back to the same quandary. They know they can't let the elephants continue to destroy so many trees. But they don't want to be forced to kill off any of the herds. They are considering some form of contraception; there have been advances in the last few years. They are also open to the idea of sending more elephants to an American zoo where they will be well-treated.

Mick and Ted don't want another controversy. In a world where there are no more simple choices, they just want to find an answer that makes some kind of sense.

Late one afternoon, the two of them are together as a ranger drives them along another dirt road inside Mkhaya. The elephants are nowhere in sight. The question of what should be done with them seems far away. The Reillys are content to enjoy the last golden hours of the day. They pass warthogs hurrying through the bush. They find a female rhino who has just given birth in the grass.

At dusk, they stop at a watering hole where the hippos float and bellow in the purple water. In the gathering darkness, father and son listen, enveloped in silence.

Then it's time to go.

"Chubeka," Mick tells the driver.

Carry on.

"Let us chase the sun," says Ted.

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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 scenes at the news conference and at the AZA convention. French was not at the zoo on the afternoon of Enshalla the tiger's escape. The account of those events is based on interviews with Lex Salisbury and Lee Ann Rottman, statements made by David Murphy at a news conference and a written statement submitted to investigators by Chris Lennon. The sections on the controversy that followed the tiger's shooting are based on interviews with Salisbury and Rottman, with Carie Peterson, Brian Czarnik and several other former staffers, and on the Web site run by two of the zoo's critics, Jeff and Coleen Kremer.

The closing sections are based on interviews with Salisbury, Larry Killmar, Kevin Zippel and others. French, who traveled to Africa to report on the elephants, was present with Mick and Ted Reilly during the final scenes in Swaziland.

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