Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo is a 56-acre (23 ha) nonprofit zoo located in Tampa, Florida. In 2004, Lowry Park Zoo was voted the #1 Family Friendly Zoo in the US by Child Magazine, and is recognized by the State of Florida as the center for Florida wildlife conservation and biodiversity (HB 457). Tampa's Lowry Park Zoological Society, in agreement with the City of Tampa, operates Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization.
Tampa's first zoo was a small collection of exotic animals in Plant Park on the grounds of the University of Tampa across the Hillsborough River from downtown. During the middle 1950s, Mayor Nick Nuccio led the push to move the zoo to a more spacious location. Land further up the river near the neighborhood of Seminole Heights was chosen. The combination zoo and park was christened Lowry Park after General Sumter Loper Lowry, a local resident celebrated for civic contributions and his service in several wars, but vilified by some for his controversial political views.
The new Lowry Park Zoo opened in 1957. The zoo shared the park with Fairyland, where concrete statues depicting fairy tales and nursery rhymes were along a winding maze of paths beneath the limbs of sprawling oak trees. This whimsical area was accessible via a large rainbow bridge. As the wildlife collection grew, other attractions and rides were also added. By the early 1980s, the zoo featured a small roller coaster, a skyride, and a kid-sized train, among other kiddie rides. However, the zoo facilities were in need of repair and renovation, with the animals cramped concrete quarters so poor that the Humane Society called it “one of the worst zoos in America”. After several years of fundraising and with the help and support of the city, the old zoo was closed in the mid-80s for a complete reconstruction in which nearly all traces of the original zoo (including Fairyland) were removed. The revamped zoo opened in March 1988. Several additions and expansions since then have brought the zoo to its current configuration.
In 2006, one of the zoo's two Sumatran tigers, a 14-year-old female named Enshala, slipped through an unlocked gate and into an area undergoing renovation. The zoo director, Lex Salisbury, defended his decision to shoot and kill the animal after attempts to tranquilize the tiger failed and the animal lurched towards the animal doctor that had shot the tranquilizer dart. Later in 2006, a group known as "Tampa's Zoo Advocates" formed. The organization seeks to improve the living conditions of the animals as well as working conditions of the employees of Lowry Park Zoo.
In April 2008, 15 patas monkeys escaped from Safari Wild, a for-profit animal attraction under development east of Tampa in rural Polk County. This brought media attention to the venture, which is owned and operated by long-time Lowry Park Zoo director Lex Salisbury. Subsequent investigations revealed many questionable transactions between Safari Wild and Lowry Park Zoo, including the transfer of over 200 zoo animals to Safari Wild, zoo funds being used to build structures on Safari Wild property, and payments from the zoo to "board" animals at Safari Wild. The city of Tampa, which provides a portion of the zoo's annual budget, demanded an audit detailing the relationship between Lowry Park, Salisbury, and his outside business ventures.