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Reflections on AZA’s Ethics Board

By Dr. Megan R. Ross
min read

We are a direct reflection of society’s ethical standards.

As members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as bridges between the people and wildlife who share this planet, we have no other choice. We have an obligation to respect the people we serve, our fellow professionals, and above all, the animals we care for and strive to protect, all while constantly changing what that means.

Because of that obligation, our stakeholders trust us to responsibly manage the animals in our care and to strive to protect wild populations worldwide. If we failed to live up to their moral code, we could lose that trust and forfeit our ability to inspire meaningful change. And since society’s standards never stop evolving, neither can ours.

The commitment to our evolution is ingrained in the very fabric of AZA’s Ethics Board, the body that establishes and maintains the Code of Professional Ethics governing AZA institutions. All nine board members are elected to three-year terms by their peers across the AZA, with three new members elected annually and chairs serving for only a single year. This structure encourages annual reevaluation of our status quo, empowering new voices and fresh perspectives while granting AZA institutions the power to reshape our collective ethical voice to best meet the moment.

While AZA’s rigorous accreditation standards serve as the word of law for member institutions—the baseline requirements, set by the Accreditation Commission, to join and maintain membership in this world-class community—our ethical standards represent a more open-ended spirit of the law. A certain behavior or action can technically meet accreditation standards while simultaneously breaching our ethical obligation to humanity and wildlife.

These two concepts run parallel to each other, yet meet at a critical juncture: operating ethically is a requirement for accreditation, as set forth by AZA’s bylaws. If the Ethics Board determines that an institution has breached a moral obligation, its members determine the disciplinary action. AZA’s Board of Directors only gets involved in ethics matters if there has been an appeal of an Ethics Board decision. The AZA Ethics Board, as the only other elected body of AZA besides the Board of Directors, has full and independent authority.

Compared to accreditation standards, AZA’s Code of Professional Ethics is purposefully ambiguous, intended as an inspirational guide for members and as a basis for disciplinary action. The code makes no attempt to prescribe disciplinary procedures or penalties for violating mandatory standards, and the severity of judgement against a violating member is determined by the character of the offense and the attendant circumstances.

Enforcing such an ambiguous code requires abundant transparency. While the ethics complaints themselves are confidential, the process is not. The complainant must stand behind the accusation (you cannot submit an anonymous complaint). Both the accused and the complainant will be able to see the comments made by both so they can respond accordingly. Two-thirds majority of the Ethics Board is required for any ruling. Following a full and impartial investigation into the accusation, the defendant is notified of any disciplinary action and has 30 days to make an appeal to the Executive Committee, which has 45 days to respond. A notice, which lists the name of the defendant and section of the code that was violated, is published in Connect only when the Executive Committee’s final action is to expel, suspend, or temporarily revoke an institution’s AZA membership.

These safeguards ensure that the AZA community, as a whole, approaches ethical requirements not simply as checkboxes, but as our evolving obligation to all living things. This endless pursuit, in turn, drives the constant improvement of our accreditation standards and sets us apart from other organizations housing animal populations. We don’t simply meet the highest standards—we set and live them, over and over again.

Dr. Megan R. Ross is the director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., and served on AZA’s Ethics Board from 2016 to 2018 and was Chair in 2017.

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