There are numerous benefits to being an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited or certified related facility, but how can the public be confident that each facility is rightly granted accreditation? Accountability and integrity are at the forefront of the AZA accreditation process.
AZA’s rigorous, scientifically-based, and publicly-available standards examine the zoo or aquarium’s entire operation, including animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, education, guest services, physical facilities, safety, staffing, finance, and governing body. The AZA accreditation standards are reviewed and updated annually, and member institutions are required to repeat the entire accreditation process every five years to assure that they are upholding the continuously evolving standards, incorporating best modern zoological practices in animal welfare and management, and embracing modern AZA philosophies.
“Accreditation is the process that sets the ship in the direction it’s going to sail,” said Denny Lewis, senior vice president of accreditation programs at AZA. “This is the process that looks at the modern practices and what science has recently discovered and sets the standard. So, not only does it drive the ship, it defines who we are. It decides who becomes an AZA-accredited member, and it’s a public service. It’s a way for the public to get a third-party opinion about how good, or not, some place is.”
The Accreditation Commission establishes, upholds, and raises the standards of the Association. The Commission is tasked with reviewing applications for accreditation and certification, conducting interviews, identifying concerns, and evaluating all available information in order to make final decisions. In addition, Commission members monitor accredited institutions and certified related facilities in between cycles, and provide mentoring, training, and guidance.
“The [accreditation] process is an internal, professional review. So, you’re really looking at yourself through a different lens than the lens you use on a daily basis,” said Dr. Don Moore, director emeritus of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., and a former member of the Accreditation Commission. “As a director or deputy director or curator, you’re walking through your entire facility on a daily basis looking for best possible animal welfare and best possible guest experience. Before you even submit, there’s a level of accountability to yourself, to the team, and to the institution. In my opinion, you need to be accreditation ready every day, not just once every five years.”
There are three possible actions the Commission may take following an accreditation hearing: grant, table, or deny. Tabled means the facility is accredited, but has one year to address minor issues before another inspection and hearing. The Commission will then uphold or deny the accreditation.
“Denial is something none of us want to face, because being part of the gold standard of the world is an important thing,” said Pat Simmons, director and chief executive officer of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., and member of the Accreditation Commission. “Now, I never want to say that losing accreditation or being denied is a punishment, because it isn’t, it is just simply that you have yet to meet the standards required to be at that level. We’re being pushed and pushed hard to do best practices across the board.”
There is always guidance provided by the Commission when a facility is denied accreditation, but it is not given in the straightforward format of ‘you must fix A, B, and C’.
“The guidance may not be as detailed as what somebody might like, because the guidance that the Commission gives is about thinking for yourself,” said Simmons. “Rather than just checking off the boxes, they have to think ‘how do I go about making sure that I’m constantly thinking and having a mindset of accreditation.’ That to me, is the most important thing anyone can learn from going through the accreditation process.”
In addition to the three results of an accreditation hearing, there are smaller ways the Commission follows up with AZA members. A facility may have to provide progress reports, like submitting documentation and images, to the Commission for a variety of lesser concerns. After any incident including animal escape or death, or a habitat breach by the public, the facility must conduct an internal investigation and submit a report to the Commission and AZA.
Being held accountable by your peers and AZA is an important element of accreditation, but the public can also hold AZA members accountable to meeting accreditation standards by reporting any concerns directly to the facility or to the AZA Accreditation Programs department.
“All of our institutions hold animals as kind of a sacred trust,” said Dr. Moore. “We’re there to steward living beings on behalf of the public, it is not our private collection. We hold these living beings in the public trust and any staff member or any member of the public can hold us accountable for what they consider poor animal welfare, a poor guest experience, or a poor safety standard at any time. They can either reach out to us as senior leadership at the zoo or aquarium that the person is concerned about, or they can reach out to AZA Accreditation Programs and ask AZA to investigate and hold that institution accountable. So, there’s that public accountability that is outside of professional accountability just within AZA.”
AZA accreditation and certification allows the public to trust that visiting and supporting that facility means supporting the highest level of animal care and welfare, conservation, education, guest service, and other industry standards. AZA members work with local, state, and federal government agencies to rescue, rehabilitate, and release species like manatees and sea turtles, as well as assist in confiscation and rehabilitation of trafficked animals. AZA and its members also work with the federal government on legislation, like the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
Engaging the people, whether visitors or government officials, is only possible because the foundations of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are based in accreditation. That provides a level of integrity and credibility that allows our community to effect positive change for wildlife and wild places.
Karlyn Marcy is a writer and the digital media coordinator for AZA.