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.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Columbus.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Columbus stories


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Columbus.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more