You may be surprised to learn just how far the Association of Zoos and Aquariums community extends around the world. AZA has 24 international members hailing from 12 countries: Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, South Korea, Argentina, Hong Kong, Spain, and Colombia.
“Vancouver Aquarium was the first international facility granted accreditation, in 1975,” said Jennifer DiNenna, director of accreditation programs at AZA. “International interest has definitely grown as time has gone on, and we now have more interest outside of the U.S. than ever before.”
With thousands of miles separating many of these member facilities, their connection to AZA is a valuable lifeline that provides both tangible and intangible benefits.
“The number one benefit is the AZA brand, which is seen as the gold standard,” said Craig Hoover, executive vice president at AZA. “Many institutions are familiar with other AZA facilities they may have visited or seen on TV, like Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Bronx Zoo, the Shedd Aquarium, or the Georgia Aquarium. They know these are globally recognized brands and they want to be a part of that group.”
For international members, being accredited by AZA increases institutional stature and legitimacy among a variety of stakeholder groups.
“It gives us considerable leverage with our local, national, and regional environmental authorities,” said Maria Clara Dominguez, director of Zoologico de Cali in Cali, Colombia. “It changes the common preconception that, being a Latin American zoo, means it cannot meet the highest standards. It is important to demonstrate that our region is capable of having zoos with the highest standards. Our immensely biodiverse region deserves to show the world that our zoos, many of which have very low technical levels, can meet such standards. It is a path that we hope to clear for many other zoos in the region.”
Travis Burke, executive director, The Dolphin Company North America, feels that the accreditation credential garners widespread respect. The Dolphin Discovery parks in Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, and Punta Cana are currently AZA-accredited, with plans to seek accreditation for the Company’s other facilities in the future.
“In Mexico and the Dominican Republic, AZA is very well known among the zoo and aquarium community. It’s an aspirational designation for those folks. Working for an AZA-accredited institution is a big deal for our staff—curators, vets, biologists—because it’s professional recognition for them. And from a business standpoint, it eases conversations with government and potential clients like cruise lines and travel agencies. It lowers barriers to entry very quickly and opens doors because they know that ethically, we are doing things the right way.”
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Hoover added that the value of differentiation is also becoming a boon for international members.
“There’s an increasing recognition of the value of differentiation, with accredited vs. non-accredited, and AZA vs. other accreditations. We see this in legal and regulatory restrictions that recognize and exempt facilities that meet AZA accreditation standards.”
International members appreciate the fact that the AZA accreditation process itself helps them develop the tools and policies they need in order to be seen as conservation organizations that demonstrate a high level of expertise and professionalism in all areas.
“I don’t believe everyone realizes the breadth of the standards and the benefits,” said Clement Lanthier, DVM, president and chief executive officer of the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “The scope of AZA accreditation is so broad, and covers so much more than animal welfare. There are benchmarks for everything—including veterinary care, safety, staffing, fundraising, facilities, and finance. They set expectations for the right things to do in all areas.”
David Chung, director, Everland Zoo in Yongin, South Korea, agreed. “In Korea, like other Western societies, the roles and functions of zoos have changed. And for developing competency in modern zoological practice, advanced operation standards and various tools were needed to achieve them. By following AZA standards and policies it is possible to catch up with modern zoological practice in animal husbandry and welfare; breeding and enrichment plans; and endangered species conservation plans. We can also provide our staff with professional training opportunities. We believe that various efforts and procedures for AZA accreditation—and the activities to maintain it afterwards—make our animals, employees, and visitors happy and, ultimately, make sustainable management possible.”
For Eduardo Nogues, director and general manager, Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, making changes to meet AZA’s accreditation safety standards reaped an unexpected benefit.
“The American culture as it relates to the safety of people and animals has been an added value for us. AZA is much more exigent with this than Europe is with the required protocols, tests, and drills. Very luckily, when we had a fire in 2019, having had the accreditation helped us a lot. It was incredible how well we worked together because of the [safety related] work we did for the accreditation.” He added that the same is true for diving safety regulations and said, “I feel much more safe now.”
No matter where an AZA member is located—or how far away the nearest member is—education, assistance, and advice are readily available and accessible.
“AZA is truly a community that creates an incredible support structure of people whom we know are doing things the right way,” said Burke. “Webinars are accessible and so easy to do. We have an active group of folks to go to the Annual Conference. And the Directors Policy Conference is by far the best. It’s business-focused, and it’s where stuff gets done.”
From Dominguez’s perspective, “Accreditation gives us access to a knowledge base represented in all the other AZA scientific and technical staff with whom we can discuss on a daily basis the way we handle and treat our animals. It has been our experience that the zoo community is extremely generous in providing advice and support to our queries and new projects; and there is readily accessible information about guidelines, standards, and processes. In addition, being able to participate in AZA’s meetings, Species Survival Plans®, animal welfare committees, and SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction gives us huge leverage in the way we develop and grow as a zoological institution. Our Zoo professionals frequently benefit from scholarships in AZA’s courses. Finally, during the pandemic crisis, AZA’s support was extremely important to us.”
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Nogues particularly appreciates what he sees as Americans’ willingness to communicate. “I admire many aspects of the American culture, and I really appreciate the fact that you are communicative. I was amazed and happy that I could join the Directors Network with other CEOs. People share their successes and their fears. In Europe we are much more closed and reluctant to share. America feels much more keen to communicate. If you have a question about anything—a smoking policy or dealing with anti-zoo people—immediately you get answers.”
He added that he is currently one of several Spanish-speaking members that another member has linked together to discuss creating educational materials for schools—a great example of cross-cultural collaboration.
Although there is a high level of satisfaction among international members, there is also agreement that there’s room for improvement when it comes to ensuring an equal opportunity for access and involvement.
“We believe it’s important to be a member of AZA, and I definitely recommend it,” said Frank Camacho, director and chief executive officer at Africam Safari near Pueblo, Mexico. “We find value in some of the tools, like the software for managing zoo populations, but AZA hasn’t done a lot of outreach to international members. Some institutions don’t take advantage of benefits like conferences and meetings because they have different financial realities. If you live in a country with limited resources, paying $1,000 is not possible.”
Hoover understands the issues and said, “Until now, we weren’t actively seeking international members, and we grew to 24 members in 12 countries with a passive approach. We’ve seen participation in our programs from many of our members, but those who are more proximate to us have been more actively involved. We are planning to look at our strategy for international members more intentionally and proactively, which will provide an opportunity to add international members and to evaluate how we’re delivering benefits for them.”
Lanthier feels the existing members can and should play a significant role in educating other international facilities about the benefits of AZA accreditation and said, “It’s up to members to share information about AZA. It’s our role to create the tide that elevates the zoo and aquarium profession around the world—from animal welfare and research to education and conservation.”
Hero photo credit: ©Calgary Zoo
Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.