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The Accreditation Gold Standard

By Mary Ellen Collins

It's All About the Animals

If you were asked to name the unsung heroes of the zoo and aquarium profession, the members of the Accreditation Commission and the accreditation inspectors might not be the first people who leap to mind. But consider their mandate. The Commission crafts and updates a set of rigorous standards that requires Association of Zoos and Aquariums member institutions of all types to continually up their game while the inspectors take time away from their own jobs to ensure that every part of every AZA-accredited institution is functioning in a way that puts animal welfare at the top of the priority list.

“The ability of an organization to maintain established standards of care has raised the bar. Like the rising tide that raises all boats, accreditation standards challenge everyone’s institution to keep improving the way we function as a profession,” said Mike Murray, DVM, director of veterinary services at Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, Calif., and a member of the Accreditation Commission. “Having a unified set of standards really levels the playing field, especially for very small organizations. They have to meet the exact same standards as larger facilities, and that’s really important.”

Veteran accreditation inspectors share a strong commitment to best practices as well as a desire to assist other facilities in their efforts to adhere to AZA standards.

“You go into an accreditation inspection to be proactive and supportive,” said Glenn Dobrogosz, chief executive officer of the Greensboro Science Center in Greensboro, N.C., and a current Accreditation Commission advisor and former chair of the Commission. “Out of 2,500 USDA licensed zoos and aquariums, 217 are accredited by AZA. I believe that life is short, and if you’re going to go for it, you might as well be the best. We are the best, and I always go to an accreditation inspection with a very positive attitude, wanting to bring more institutions into AZA.” 

From Groundskeeping to Governance

“I can’t think of a single institution, staff member, or colleague that doesn’t think of the animals first,” said Dobrogosz. 

Animal welfare is top of mind throughout the accreditation process, with specific welfare considerations attached to each of 13 areas of review: Animal Welfare, Care, and Management; Veterinary Care; Conservation; Education and Interpretation; Scientific Advancement; Governing Authority; Staff; Support Organization; Finance; Physical Facilities; Safety/Security; Guest Services; and Master and Strategic Planning. While the animal welfare considerations are obvious in some areas, they are equally important in the areas that may not, at first glance, seem to be directly related to the animals.

“I can’t think of a single institution, staff member, or colleague that doesn’t think of the animals first.”

Credit: © Elesa Kim

“Governance and finance have significant impacts on animal welfare in our institutions,” said Craig Piper, director of city zoos for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y., and vice chair of the Accreditation Commission. “While the professional staff are responsible for the daily operations and care of the animals, governing authorities and leadership control the institution’s strategic priorities and have fiduciary responsibility over the zoo or aquarium’s budget. A stable, healthy budget ensures that the institution can maintain adequate staffing to properly care for the animals. It also provides adequate funding for maintenance of animal exhibits necessary to ensure positive welfare.

“A governing authority also needs to focus on identifying and supporting capital funding needs to ensure that aging, outdated facilities are upgraded or replaced regularly in order to enhance animal welfare based on the latest science. Financial contingency planning established by the governing authority and zoo or aquarium leadership also protects an institution during challenging events to ensure animals receive the care necessary to maintain good welfare.”

The fact that the inspectors bring fresh eyes to a facility enables them to identify issues that may have escaped staff or are signs of a bigger problem.

“It’s a matter of everybody looking at things more critically,” said Murray. “In your own institution you see something, but you don’t observe it. The outside team notices things. For example, if I found that an electrician failed to replace a cover plate, it wouldn’t be a fault if they replaced it right then. But I would make sure the director hears and sees that information, because if you see a problem over and over again, it might be a more systemic problem.”

Relying on Science

The accreditation standards are continually reviewed and revised, and the creation of Standard 1.5.0 two years ago was a significant change that added science and metrics to the focus on assessing animal welfare. The standard states: “animal welfare/wellness refers to an animal’s collective physical and mental states over a period of time, and is measured on a continuum from good to poor.”

“Evaluating welfare was more subjective in the past, but we now have the ability to objectively assess it through scientific methods,” said Jeff Wyatt, DVM, environmental justice advocate at Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, N.Y., and current chair of the Accreditation Commission. “We’ve always prioritized welfare–now we can measure it.”

A tiger swims behind exhibit glass while two children look on
Credit: © Julie Larsen-Maher

Initially, there were questions among zoo and aquarium professionals who didn’t understand why there was a new focus on welfare because they felt they had been prioritizing welfare all along.  Mentoring, online training opportunities, and a guide on creating an animal welfare assessment process helped to explain how to add the scientific component to the work they were already doing.

Nancy McToldridge, zoo director at Santa Barbara Zoo in Santa Barbara, Calif., and current Accreditation Commission advisor, participated in creating the welfare process guide and said the experience prompted a focus on the natural history of the species and the individual history of the animal.

“It changes the way we are working on enrichment. It is still in process, but we are working to evolve from our old ideas of behavioral enrichment to enriching experiences. Giving a gibbon the absolute best opportunities to be a gibbon is an example. What does a gibbon need to be a gibbon? A boomer ball or lots of trees and vines for brachiation? A hammock for snoozing or tree branches at high vantage points? Feeding animals is another example. We concern ourselves with sterilization and cleanliness so much that sometimes we lose sight of what may be important for the animal. Does a parrot eat its diet out of a silver bowl or off a hanging skewer in the wild?  What is a more species appropriate way to approach providing food to a parrot?”

Girl points at aquarium fish family looks at aquarium
Credit: © Julie Larsen-Maher

Positive Change

The new way of assessing and measuring welfare has revealed some vulnerabilities in current practices that have led to changes and new areas of focus, according to Wyatt.

“We [Seneca Park Zoo] used to secure our elephants in their indoor stalls overnight because of a concern they may be at risk of injuring themselves when left unsupervised on exhibit; a concern for risk of injury to potential after-hours trespassers entering the elephant yard; and the possible breach in exhibit perimeter if a tree falls on the fencing in a wind storm. 

“We carefully risk assessed the scenarios, deciding that since the elephants were compatible all day long in the yard, why not observe them overnight when given free access to the yard and the stall? We evaluated our security program, infrastructure, and facilities and decided we could keep trespassers out; and we agreed that the trees adjacent to the elephant yard were well trimmed and that we could safely house the elephants indoors if high winds were forecasted.

“We were so pleased to see that when given overnight access, both elephants rearranged the topsoil in the yard, making soft soil beds, and from that point onward, they slept outdoors during Rochester's warm summer nights. It was a meaningful 16-hour daily enhancement in welfare made by our staff, who objectively assessed risk and benefit of giving the elephants a choice of where to spend the night. We subsequently replicated the same overnight yard access practice for polar bears, lions, tigers, and orangutans, and realized the same welfare benefits.”

Piper, too, has heard of positive outcomes during almost all of the inspections he’s participated in since the adoption of standard 1.5.0.

“One question I ask is, ‘Have you been surprised by any of your assessment results?’ In virtually every case, the response has been ‘yes,’ followed by a story of some discovery that had been made through an individual animal’s welfare assessment.  That tells me the process is working and we are learning new things that will, undoubtedly, benefit our animals. As such, we’ll continue to see colleagues add innovations to their assessment processes and to their animal welfare and wellness programs, just as we have evolved in all our zoo and aquarium practices over the years.”

Having a set of accreditation standards that is not etched in stone allows us to maintain a focus on animal welfare while continually raising the bar and evolving the gold standard for our profession. There is a reason we are the best, and the animals are all the better for it.

Photo Credit: © Julie Larsen-Maher

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. 

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