Columbus Zoo loses accreditation appeal with Association of Zoos & Aquariums

Jennifer Smola Shaffer
The Columbus Dispatch
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

The top accrediting body for zoos and aquariums denied the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's accreditation appeal Monday, officially stripping the popular central Ohio institution of an industry seal of approval meant to build public trust.  

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit that represents more than 240 facilities in the United States and overseas, denied the Columbus Zoo’s accreditation after hearing the zoo’s appeal during its board of directors meeting. The zoo, which reported the denial in a press release and in an email to supporters, will have an opportunity to reapply for AZA accreditation in fall of 2022. 

New Columbus Zoo President and CEO Tom Schmid called the AZA's decision disappointing, but said the zoo will continue to move forward. Animal care and welfare remains the zoo's top priority, he said in a prepared statement. 

"In the last nine months, the Zoo team has moved mountains to make transformative changes that continue to make us a better Zoo with new team members, new policies, and more oversights that were in place at the time of the AZA inspection in July," Schmid said.

Losing accreditation from the AZA impacts eligibility for certain funds, animal exchange and conservation programs, and can determine whether a facility is subject to certain state laws. 

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The zoo welcomes standards and scrutiny in evaluating an institution, and being accredited by a third-party professional association is important, Schmid said.

"We are exploring all options to continue fulfilling our mission and to continue our work with endangered and threatened species that need our help,” he said. 

How the Columbus Zoo lost accreditation

The AZA first denied the Columbus Zoo’s accreditation in early October, following a routine, five-year accreditation review process. At the time, the AZA’s accreditation commission expressed concerns with the zoo’s repeated animal transfers with non-AZA members to supply baby animals for entertainment purposes. They also were concerned with inappropriate business practices by the zoo’s former leadership.   

Zoo officials quickly promised to appeal the decision, noting that the zoo had already made numerous changes to meet AZA standards ahead of their accreditation review. The AZA team that visited the zoo for the review commended those changes, but also said it wanted “to see that these changes can be sustained.”  

The changes followed the recent documentary film, "The Conservation Game," which raised questions about the way celebrity conservationists, including longtime Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna, acquire exotic animals. The film alleged baby tigers and snow leopards that appeared with Hanna on late-night talk shows often didn't come from or return to accredited zoos, but were instead shuffled among backyard breeders and unaccredited zoos that don't have to adhere to the same strict animal care standards and ethics rules as accredited facilities.  

The zoo announced in July it had cut ties with animal vendors who do not meet certain standards of animal care. The Hanna family shared in April that Jack Hanna had been diagnosed with dementia, and told The Dispatch this summer that they hadn't seen the documentary and would never try to speak for the former zoo director. 

Prior to the documentary, former Columbus Zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf and former Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell resigned after an investigation by The Dispatch detailed their extensive personal use of zoo resources. Forensic audits initiated by the zoo's board later revealed improper spending and questionable business practices by the former top two executives, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in zoo losses. Investigations and reviews by the Ohio Attorney General and Ohio Auditor of State remain pending. 

The denial of the zoo's accreditation appeal comes just days into Schmid's tenure, who began in his new zoo leadership role Dec. 6. Schmid previously told The Dispatch he was puzzled by the AZA's initial accreditation denial, noting the zoo's issues regarding animal acquisition and leadership's missteps "have been dealt with very effectively." 

In a written statement Tuesday morning, the AZA board of directors said it did not make the decision lightly. 

"We are encouraged by recent actions taken by new leadership at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, but in view of the serious and persistent violations of AZA standards, over at least the past 5 years, we cannot accredit at this time," the statement said. "We are hopeful that Columbus will continue addressing recommendations from the Commission, and seek accreditation from AZA again in the near future.”

What losing AZA accreditation means 

Among federal agencies and those in the zoo and aquarium industry, the AZA is held up as the “national standard” for zoos in the U.S. Holding accreditation by the AZA develops public trust and confidence that a facility meets or exceeds current industry standards, and distinguishes facilities from for-profit animal menageries.  

AZA accreditation also exempts institutions from certain government requirements, especially at the state level, and it can impact eligibility for funding and grants from some foundations, corporations or other funding sources. 

As it works to regain accreditation beginning  in fall of 2022, the Columbus Zoo "will do everything necessary to remain in compliance of all laws and regulations," its website said. 

Accredited AZA institutions are eligible to participate in animal exchange programs with other AZA member zoos and aquariums, as well as the AZA’s own conservation programs. It was not immediately clear Monday how many or which animals at the Columbus Zoo might be part of such programs, or how exactly they will be affected with the zoo's loss of accreditation. 

With the denial, the Columbus Zoo is no longer part of the AZA’s Species Survival Plan programs, unless it becomes an approved “sustainability partner” with the AZA. The zoo said it “will immediately begin the process of becoming AZA sustainability partners for any species affected."  Species Survival Plan programs may also work with a facility that loses its accreditation for up to two years to help manage the population and facilitate transfer of animals owned by AZA facilities, the zoo said. 

Those who hold memberships to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium have typically received free or discounted admission to dozens of other AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, as part of the AZA’s reciprocal admissions program. Columbus Zoo officials do not believe other facilities will honor those discounts of Columbus Zoo members now that accreditation has been denied, according to the zoo’s website.  

“We strongly recommend calling ahead to the park you are visiting to confirm if the discount is applicable at this time,” the website said. The Columbus Zoo however, will continue to honor reciprocal admission discounts for members of other AZA-accredited institutions.  

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola