Oct 7, 2021 - News
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium loses accreditation
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium entrance.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium entrance. Photo: Grahm S. Jones/Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

After a year marred by scandals, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has lost accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for the first time in 41 years.

Why it matters: AZA is the industry's top accrediting body and sets the gold standard for animal care. A lack of accreditation is a blow both to public trust and zoo leadership going forward.

  • Finances could also be impacted, as the zoo will be ineligible for some grants and other funding sources, officials said in a statement.

Between the lines: No accreditation could also block the zoo from AZA conservation programs, including breeding animals.

  • Zoo spokeswoman Jen Fields tells Axios it will apply to be a "sustainability partner," which would allow participation despite not being an AZA member.

Driving the news: A recent documentary, "The Conservation Game," exposed the involvement of longtime zoo director Jack Hanna and former vice president of animal programs, Suzi Rapp, in the exotic big cat trade, a clear violation of AZA standards.

  • The pair acquired baby tigers and snow leopards from non-accredited facilities like roadside zoos and backyard breeders to use for TV appearances, under the guise they were zoo animals.
  • Hanna has retired from public life due to a dementia diagnosis, announced the day after the film's April debut. Rapp retired in July.

Meanwhile, a Columbus Dispatch investigation in March exposed zoo officials using its assets personally, resulting in losses of at least $631,000. A state investigation is ongoing.

What they're saying: "Although this is a painful time, I am hopeful that … we will come to a more productive, more transparent, more ethical place in animal welfare," Mike Webber, the film's director, tells Axios.

  • "I'm eager to give the new leadership a chance to right the wrongs of the past."

Yes, but: In a statement, zoo officials said they've already corrected the issues addressed in the film and investigation, and that those involved are no longer employed.

What's next: The zoo plans to appeal the association's decision before an Oct. 30 deadline. If that fails, the earliest the zoo could reapply for accreditation is September 2022.

👋 Alissa's thought bubble: I covered the zoo for several years at the Dispatch and Wednesday's news was disheartening. The good news? The average zoo-goer likely won't notice a difference in their experience for now.

  • But if the new leadership isn't able to turn things around, the long-term impact of losing baby animals and accreditation could be devastating to an institution beloved by so many central Ohioans.
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