Successfully navigating the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ quinquennial accreditation process is not easy, nor is AZA’s procedure for reviewing self-reported incidents or visitors’ complaints. But veterans of those proceedings agree that the insights gained and lessons learned are well worth the time they and their staff members have invested.
“Having that process in place is not only great for the Buffalo Zoo, it also is fantastic for all of the zoos and aquariums accredited by the AZA,” said Norah Fletchall, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y. “This adds to our body of knowledge, adds to our best practices, and brings in resources that perhaps we haven’t thought about.”
Accreditation, incident investigations, and complaint reviews are opportunities for managers of zoos and aquariums to have fresh eyes review their organizations’ animal-care and -welfare programs to make sure they are employing best practices in every area. Rather than detract from an institution’s reputation, these processes enhance the public’s perception by improving animal care, staff safety, and visitors’ experiences.
“It’s really good to have outside eyes come in and look at things, give you a fresh perspective, and question the way you’re operating,” said Tim Morrow, chief executive officer of the San Antonio Zoo in San Antonio, Texas. “We have a lot of professionals who have worked in this industry for 15, 20, 25 years and there is some ‘I’ve always done it this way ...’ Having outside peers look at you through the accreditation process is huge in challenging complacency.”
The validity of points raised by the accreditation commission may not always be apparent when they are made, but they stand up to review. In its interim report on the Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Mo., earlier this year, the commission said zoo managers needed to be more transparent with staff members about the institution’s animal-welfare process. At first, Sean Putney, the chief zoological officer, believed his Zoo’s animal-welfare process was as good as any in the country, but he knew that reviewers’ counsel was not to be shrugged off.
“So we went out and looked at what several other zoos were doing and came to the conclusion: You know what? We can do better in this area,” he said. “So let’s look at what we’re currently doing and what others are currently doing and make some changes that will make ours a better process.”
The AZA’s accreditation program began in 1974, with the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., and the Philadelphia Zoo in Philadelphia, Pa., leading the way. The Association currently accredits 238 zoos and aquariums. Since each facility must renew its accreditation every five years, the commission conducts an average of 48 reviews and inspections annually. Jennifer DiNenna, director of accreditation programs at AZA, said the commission also reviews an average of 62 incidents at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums each year and receives about 75 public complaints, all of which result in some level of investigation.
Since AZA frequently raises its animal-welfare standards, the commission has recommendations for almost every facility it visits. “On occasion you’ll find a unicorn—for lack of a better word—zoo or aquarium that may have no concerns at all,” Fletchall said. “But that’s a rarity.”
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Stephanie Stowell, director of the Albuquerque BioPark in Albuquerque, N.M., was promoted to the institution’s top job during its accreditation renewal process, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The process, especially the on-site inspection, was all “a little daunting” at first, she recalled. “But from the minute they got here, we all felt at ease because it felt like a partnership.”
In its report, the accreditation commission noted that several exhibits at BioPark’s zoo, which opened in 1927, did not represent the level of complexity expected of a modern facility. Stowell said the comment inspired zoo workers to act.
“It gave the staff a new perspective to say, ‘I can do something, just you watch me,’” she said, “and then they went out and did amazing things that improved the welfare of the animals as well as their experience caring for them.”
The commission also encourages zoos and aquariums to quickly and openly acknowledge issues without fear of reprisal. When the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas, suffered a mass mortality event in 2015, it notified AZA and issued a press release first thing the next morning, before it identified why its animals were dying. Jesse Gilbert, the Aquarium’s chief operating officer at the time, said one of the first things then Chief Executive Officer Tom Schmid told him was, “No matter what happened, we are going to be transparent and we’re going to let people know if we made a mistake.”
Transparency extended to the Aquarium opening at its normal hour the morning after the incident, even though more than ten exhibits had no animals and Gilbert and others were busily disinfecting the entire Aquarium, changing the plumbing to isolate exhibits and contain any disease transmission, and collecting samples of tissues, water, and water-treatment chemicals to try to learn what caused the event. The problem soon was traced to a mislabeled pesticide.
“The lab results took a while,” said Gilbert, who became interim chief executive officer when Schmid left to lead the Columbus Zoo in 2021, “but once we determined that there was a really good chance that there was an unknown chemical in the bottle, we immediately engaged the Association and told everybody what had happened, the timeline of events, and what we had used. The supplier we used supplied a lot of aquariums, so we shared the lot number, photos of the chemical, photos of the bottle—we shared any and everything we could. And we said, ‘Please do not use this.’”
He said he still hears from peers who tell him the Texas Aquarium’s candidness and alacrity in sharing information prevented similar die-offs elsewhere. AZA asked the Aquarium to deliver a presentation at the Annual Conference in September, just four months after the incident. Topic: how to manage bad news. “The AZA became a strong advocate for us because they thought we had done the right thing,” Gilbert said.
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Stowell had a similar experience when a bacterial infection claimed the lives of four apes last summer. “We kept AZA in the loop, made sure they were informed as the situation evolved,” she said. AZA put her in touch with other zoos that had battled similar outbreaks in the past. “It was a perfect example of how the AZA accreditation and professional community work together,” she said. “We have a network of 200 odd plus peers around the globe that we can all learn from and get support from.”
When a young gibbon drowned in a shallow pool in its habitat at the Kansas City Zoo last June, Putney swiftly reported the death to federal authorities and AZA. “It’s more important that we learn from the mistakes that happen, and self-reporting on issues or incidents is the first way you can prevent tragedies from happening in the future,” he said.
That root-cause analysis is what makes AZA’s self-reporting mandate so valuable. “Instead of looking at it in terms of what happened and who do we blame, it involves stepping back and looking at what contributed to this particular situation,” Fletchall said. “And then mitigating those factors.” The process may find that a staff member was overworked or did not have the resources needed to do his or her job.
In addition to incident reviews and the accreditation process, zoo and aquarium leaders have a fountain of outside perspective pour through their gates every day. Visitor complaints can draw attention to issues institutions were unaware of or they can spark an idea for improved signage. An upgraded lion habitat attracted many visitors to the San Antonio Zoo in 2015, two of whom told zoo personnel that the animals looked bored because they rarely moved. “The cat was doing exactly what he would do in the wild,” Morrow said. “But getting those two complaints tells us, ‘OK, we need to do a better job of telling the story that cats sleep fourteen hours of the day and spend the rest of their time getting food for survival.’”
Morrow himself served as a fresh pair of eyes on his first day at the San Antonio Zoo in 2014. As he approached the entrance, he noticed a sign in a gift shop that read “Cameras and Film.”
“When’s the last time we sold film here?” he asked several nearby employees. “Everyone just looked at each other until one of them said, ‘Um, probably ten years ago,’” Morrow recalled. “The sign was still there because they stopped seeing things.”
Today, the sign—“Cameras and Film”—hangs in his office, a reminder for everybody who enters to appreciate the insights of outsiders.
Hero photo credit: ©Buffalo Zoo
Mark A. Stein is a writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.