Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities keep the animals in their care safe and healthy while creating enjoyable and safe visitor experiences.
AZA’s accreditation standards read, “One of the three core principles upon which AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums operate is safety. Facilities must be properly maintained, infrastructure sound, proper practices in place, staff aware and trained, and a culture of safety inherent throughout the institution. All reasonable concerns regarding the welfare of individual animals or groups, visitors, and staff must be thoroughly assessed and corrected.” Regular inspections, emergency drills, animal welfare assessments, and more are all a part of AZA’s accreditation standards, designed to keep animals and visitors safe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted operations at zoos and aquariums. Each AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium is required to follow the COVID-19 transmission reduction guidance of federal and local governments, such as social distancing and mask mandates. Many AZA-accredited facilities are taking additional steps to keep both animals and visitors safe.
Keeping Animals Safe
Animal safety is a top priority for AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, this includes inside animal habitats, animals interacting with other animals, diet and enrichment considerations, and keeping animals safe from guests. Habitats are designed with the unique needs and abilities of each species in mind and optimize the health of each animal, while minimizing risk of injury or escape. Additionally, each habitat includes areas where an animal can go for privacy and quiet to rest, away from guest view. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums constantly monitor water quality and the conditions of the barriers in and around habitats to ensure animal safety.
Unfortunately, a guest is more likely to breach a barrier than an animal is to escape. Zoo and aquarium visitors play an important role in keeping animals safe by not climbing barriers or throwing food and other objects into habitats. Being careful to use appropriate trash receptacles also prevents litter from being blown into habitats.
One example in the AZA accreditation standards veterinary care section that deals in safety in diet and enrichment items reads; “If the institution uses browse plants as part of the diet or as enrichment items for its animals, the items must be identified and reviewed for safety prior to use.” Many zoos accept donations of tree trimmings or browse to feed herbivorous species. These donations are carefully identified and inspected to assure animals are being fed safe and chemical-free trimmings. Accredited aquariums feed many of their species quality sustainable seafood to provide the best possible food to their animals.
Keeping animals safe during transfer and breeding is another important area of animal safety. AZA cooperatively managed Species Survival Plan® (SSP) programs develop breeding and transfer plans that identify population goals and recommendations to manage genetically diverse, demographically varied, and biologically sound populations for each species.
Animals selected for breeding through an SSP may need to be moved to another zoo or aquarium. New animals at a facility go through a quarantine period and a planned introduction process. Also known as a “howdy,” this process has a number of steps to keep animals safe and will vary from species to species. Animal care staff monitor behavior and are prepared to intervene if necessary.
With certain species, the two animals will be in separate behind-the-scenes holding areas next to each other so they can smell and see each other through a barrier. Then, the door between the two stalls would be opened, or partially opened, so the animals can choose to interact with each other. Finally, the animals may be given free rein to interact across their visitor-facing and behind-the-scenes habitats. There is no set time frame for this process, it is based on the species and individual animal behaviors.
What if Animals Don’t Get Along?
If animals have been placed together under a breeding recommendation or introduced to be a family group, there are many procedures that the animal care team has in place to maintain animal safety. Many facilities use in-habitat and behind the scenes cameras that allow animal care staff to monitor behavior.
Across AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, animal care staff use positive reinforcement to train animals to respond to certain cues in case of an emergency. This training can be used when an animal needs to move to a particular area of their habitat. If animals do not get along, this cue is used so the animals can be separated from each other.
AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums ensure their guests are safe through multiple measures, some obvious and some not. With guest safety in mind, daily checklists ensure inspections and repairs to railings, sidewalks and more are completed. Some safety measures are very easy to see, such as fences, mesh, and glass barriers around animal habitats, but others are not as obvious, like a stream or trench. These barriers are created after studying the species that will live in the habitat and different aspects of their behavior, like if they like water and how far they can jump.
Some of the COVID-19 precautions being taken to keep you and your family safe include:
- Advanced ticket purchase or reservation for a specific entrance time
- Facial covering requirements
- One-way traffic patterns
- Pausing the use of high-touch surfaces
- Clear signage to help guests social distance
- Cashless transactions
You can feel safe when you visit an AZA-accredited facility because our members are taking guest safety seriously with capacity limits for guests and increased cleaning throughout the grounds. These precautions keep guests, staff, and animals safe as some species of animals in our care are susceptible to the virus. Each facility has their own local and state regulations to follow, so please check their website for more information and for tickets before you visit since these regulations may change with the evolution of COVID-19.
Built for Your Safety
AZA-accredited facilities are built for the safety of the staff, guests, and animals. Habitat barriers like fencing and glass are constructed and maintained to the highest quality. AZA-accredited facilities also follow ADA Guidelines to make sure that facilities are accessible to all guests. Accreditation inspections include thorough review of guest facilities and experience. AZA’s standards cover both animal and human welfare. Signage across the zoo or aquarium will remind guests about safety procedures and petting areas or touch tanks are carefully monitored for the best-possible experience for guests and animals alike.
Be Respectful of The Animals and Follow the Rules
Staff and volunteers at AZA-accredited facilities are easily found around the grounds to ensure that visitors are respectful of the animals and follow the rules. Throwing anything into an animal’s habitat is very dangerous for the animal, as they could injure themselves or consume it, disrupting their specially curated diet. Remember that an animal’s habitat is their home. They may feel threatened by guests shouting and making loud noises, which causes stress and may cause them to hide. Please be respectful of the animals and follow the rules to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for other guests and environment for the animals.
The Worst-Case Scenario
AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are committed to providing a healthy and safe environment for animals, employees, guests, volunteers, and surrounding communities, but sometimes, things go wrong. When this happens, you can be confident that staff at AZA-accredited facilities know what to do.
This is evidenced by AZA accreditation standards, which have a complete section on safety and security. Live-action emergency drills are conducted at least once annually for each of the four basic types of emergency: fire; weather or other environmental emergency appropriate to the region; injury to visitor or staff; and animal escape. These drills must be recorded and results evaluated for compliance with emergency procedures. Facilities that house venomous and potentially dangerous animals must have emergency alarm systems and/or protocols in place to address animal bite injury, attack, or escape from enclosure.
AZA provides guidance on safety and security through the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership (ZAHP) and the AZA Safety Committee.
Efforts include a focus on robust health and safety programs including good planning, prevention, response and recovery, and related initiatives. This includes training, practice drills, active monitoring of employee health and safety practices, and motivational tools to inspire employees to participate in these programs. An example practices document is provided to members, but each facility must make their own safety plan.
Prioritizing animal, guest, and staff safety is a key to earning AZA-accreditation or certification. Look for the AZA accreditation or certification logo on websites, in advertisements, and at the gate! Before you visit, check our institution status webpage to see if an institution is AZA-accredited or certified, and rest assured that you will have a safe, fun, and educational visit.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES →
Top and middle photo credit: © Buttonwood Park Zoo
Bottom photo credit: © Seattle Aquarium
Karlyn Marcy is the communications program assistant at AZA.
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