The Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation process is a monumental endeavor. It’s rigorous and technical, guided by standards that are more than 100 pages in length. While some AZA facilities view accreditation as a process to discuss internally, others believe it’s an accomplishment that should be shared far and wide.
“Only about 10 percent of zoos and aquariums make it to this level,” said Maylon White, who is division director of North Carolina Aquariums, which include three aquariums and one educational pier. “If you are accredited, then you are in the elite.”
Jennifer DiNenna, AZA’s director of accreditation programs, encourages members to talk about the accreditation process, and all its demands around animal welfare, care and management; safety and security; scientific advancement; education and conservation; and more.
“The more the local public understands that AZA accreditation sets an institution apart from other institutions that may be in the area, the more they will be willing to support that zoo or aquarium,” said DiNenna.
Below, you’ll find the stories of how three different facilities are sharing the stories of accreditation—with visitors, with the media, and with their board and donors—and how opening up about accreditation has helped them build a strong community that’s invested in their success and growth, now and for years to come.
When Utica Zoo in Utica, N.Y., lost its accreditation in 2004, it was big news. So, when Andria Heath was hired as executive director of the Zoo in 2011, she immediately set her sights on achieving accreditation once more.
“We let our community know that if we can’t do this right, we should not be a zoo. And part of doing it right is to become accredited and to grow and to have enough money to have enough staff and the appropriate habitats and growth,” said Heath.
To get started, Heath went to an AZA conference and found an accreditation mentor. Then she hired an administrative assistant who would serve as liaison to the AZA accreditation process. Together, they began going through the standards one by one and even arranged mock inspections, pinpointing areas of the Zoo that needed to be updated. One building, in particular, was damp and dark, its small spaces—which housed the Zoo’s white-handed gibbons—were lined with old black bars. Simply put, it wasn’t up to AZA standards. “We gutted it and vowed to never have animals in what was an archaic setting like that again,” said Heath.
The price tag for a proper habitat was high: $970,000. To raise the funds, Heath came up with a slogan that was brutally honest.
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“One day, I was in a meeting and I said we have to let our community know that we don’t like it either. And if they want to help us make it better, they have to help us make it better,” she said.
Soon after, the Zoo launched the “We Don’t Like it Either” campaign, inviting the public to help transform the Zoo into a place that inspired feelings of pride. It worked. Donations poured in from the community, and on top of those, the Zoo received a $300,000 grant from the county to assist with deferred maintenance to achieve AZA accreditation, along with a grant from the state and funding from New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils. It reached its goal and built the new home for the gibbons, debt-free.
In 2018, AZA granted the Zoo accreditation. That same day, Heath—who had flown to Seattle for the accreditation hearing—boarded a plane home to New York and, during the flight, wrote thank-you notes to more than 100 donors, letting them know that they’d been instrumental in this achievement. She mailed them during a layover so that they’d arrive quickly. She knew, after all, that the accreditation was made possible because of their trust and determination. And for continued growth—and future accreditation—they would all need to continue to work together, connected by community and driven by pride.
Jeff Ewelt has a nickname: Jeff the Nature Guy. In Billings, Mont., you can catch his voice just about everywhere—he makes weekly appearances taking creatures like Madagascar hissing cockroaches on two local news stations and two radio shows, and he has his own YouTube channel. His goal is to educate and excite viewers about things that are happening at ZooMontana in Billing, Mont., where he’s director. Along the way, he’ll frequently talk about subjects related to accreditation—a topic near and dear to his heart, because he knows what it’s like to lose it.
In 2011, just one day before Ewelt started his new job at ZooMontana, the Zoo lost its accreditation. That’s when he vowed to rebuild trust in the community and work towards accreditation once again, even if it took years. “As a small Zoo, we’re really dependent on the local community, and so we just knew that we had to get that love and respect and admiration back, and we knew that was going to take quite a long time to make happen,” said Ewelt.
He talked up his accreditation goal to anyone who would listen. That meant reaching out to the media and rebuilding relationships that had soured.
“We did not have a good relationship with the media, just because the Zoo was easy to take potshots at,” said Ewelt. He was willing to bring animals on air and talk about nature, and those appearances as Jeff the Nature Guy resonated.
“Those videos are built for kids, but I have more adults tell me they see them than the kids do,” he said. Before he knew it, local business leaders who saw him or heard him on air were reaching out, asking how they could help the Zoo. “That was amazing for us,” he said. “In the non-profit world it’s usually us doing the asking, but to have somebody asking us how to be involved, that was a big deal.”
That community support continued to grow, and when the Zoo applied for and received accreditation in 2019, the milestone made headlines, and people around town celebrated right along with the Zoo. Trust had officially been rebuilt, and the Zoo was stronger for it. “Engaging the community is a risk, but boy, it pays dividends,” said Ewelt. “If you can walk the walk, talk the talk, it’ll be worth it in the long run.”
He believes that pursuing accreditation went hand-in-hand with regaining that trust, because it was a pursuit that commanded respect. “Accreditation is the gold standard,” he said. “It lets anybody and everybody know that we have achieved these rigorous standards and we’re able to stand tall with the big boys of the zoo world. And that’s a big deal for us small zoos.”
For Glenn Dobrogosz, good storytelling is the key to getting people to care about accreditation. Recently, he took a group of donors on a tour of the Greensboro Science Center in Greensboro, N.C., where he’s chief executive officer, with the hope that they would walk away with a deeper understanding of how AZA standards prioritize animal care and welfare.
To help them make that connection themselves, he guided them through the center’s new pygmy hippo exhibit, sharing the kinds of details you might expect to hear on a private home tour: “We provided each animal with their own bedroom. Their own private bed. Their own private pool in their bedroom. Their own sauna room with a waterfall. They have a waterfall, they have three pools, a little river going through the exhibit, they have a beach, a mud wallow, a sunny area and a shade area all in one exhibit,” he said.
When tour-goers seemed surprised by the space, Dobrogosz shared with them the “why” and how it relates to conservation goals, which are a part of accreditation.
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“The whole point is a breeding program: mimic their native habitat the best you can, make them calm and comfortable and make them easier to manage so that they have babies. And guess what? We introduced them together and two weeks ago they were breeding in their bedroom pool.”
The donors were able to walk away with colorful, behind-the-scenes stories, and a new appreciation for accreditation and the complex breeding programs all AZA institutions manage.
Dobrogosz has been making the accreditation process an exciting, shareable endeavor for more than 20 years. In his role at different AZA facilities around the United States, he’s created multiple-choice tests about accreditation for board members and staff, led full board and staff retreats that focus on accreditation categories and standards, hosted interactive meetings where the board and staff are given challenges to solve in accordance with AZA standards, and emceed dinners where staff and board members are posed with a task or challenge that they have to discuss and solve.
“You turn what could be considered boring into fascination,” he said. “You have to find ways to make it personal and professional so they feel like they’re invested in it.”
Because for Dobrogosz, accreditation is anything but boring. He believes the standards double as an instruction manual for the organization to follow in order to navigate a path to success and distinction. Follow them, and you’ll become one of the elites. “Life is too short to waste and not be the best, so go for the gusto,” said Dobrogosz.
Every journey is a story worth sharing, and the pursuit of AZA accreditation is no different. When striving to achieve the gold standard in accreditation, institutions can invite their entire community along for the ride. They can share their triumphs and challenges along the way. As those interviewed for this story all learned first-hand, they came out stronger because of it.
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.