Apr 18, 2022 - News

Scoop: Zoo seeks new accreditation, but not without critics

Illustration of a tiger wearing a Groucho Marx-style glasses, nose, and mustache disguise.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

After losing its gold-standard status with leading accreditor Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Columbus Zoo has applied to join a different organization.

  • But some animal advocates have criticized the Zoological Association of America for lax enforcement of animal care standards and similar-sounding name.

Why it matters: The zoo is working to rebuild its reputation after a year marred by controversy, but this move could further escalate the taxpayer-supported nonprofit's problems.

  • Zoos seek accreditation to bolster public perception and access the animals and knowledge shared between member institutions.

Driving the news: At a board meeting last week, new Columbus Zoo CEO Tom Schmid said officials should know in four to five weeks if the ZAA accepts the zoo's application for accreditation.

  • The group was laser-focused on animal welfare at a recent inspection and even caught some minor issues the AZA previously missed, Schmid told board members.

The other side: Critics say the ZAA, founded in 2005, exhibits a pattern of rubber-stamping institutions that lose AZA accreditation and exploit animals for entertainment.

  • "We have a record of enforcement. When's the last time a ZAA member lost their accreditation? I'm not aware of any," AZA president and CEO Dan Ashe tells Axios.

What they're saying: "Running to the ZAA just feels like a race to the bottom, rather than a step in the right direction," says Carney Anne Nasser, the animal protection attorney featured in "The Conservation Game" documentary that first exposed the zoo's controversy.

Between the lines: A ZAA-accredited facility, Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Kansas, was involved in the activity that initially got the zoo in trouble, the film alleges.

  • The park supplied snow leopard cubs for former zoo director Jack Hanna's TV appearances at an age before they could be legally handled by the public. They were then discarded to unaccredited facilities.

Of note: If the zoo joins the ZAA, rejoining the AZA isn't off the table, as a handful of institutions are dual members.

What's next: The zoo can reapply to the AZA in the fall. For now, it's approved as a polar bear "sustainability partner" so it can continue to breed them, and it may apply for that approval for other species, spokesperson Nicolle Gómez Racey tells Axios.

  • The ZAA did not respond for comment. Racey said "we welcome the rigor of all our accrediting bodies" but did not answer a question about the ZAA's reputation.

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