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We’re in it Together

By Mary Ellen Collins
min read

Inspectors’ Role in Maintaining the Gold Standard

“I remember my first inspection because I was so excited, I agreed to the date without picking up on the fact that it was my daughter’s first birthday!” said John Walczak, director, Louisville Zoological Gardens in Louisville, Ky., when talking about his first accreditation inspection for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. That was thirty years ago, and his enthusiasm for the process is just as strong today.

“Being an accreditation inspector is one of the highest honors and biggest responsibilities within AZA,” he said. “ It’s probably the most important thing the Association does, and it adds credibility to everything we do.”

Walczak’s passion is echoed by many of his zoo and aquarium colleagues, whether they’ve been inspectors for years or decades. 

A child with a polar bear swimming on the other side of the glass

“I really do objectively believe that AZA’s standards are the most rigorous and unambiguous out there,” said Ed Diebold, former chief life sciences officer, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C. “I became an inspector because I wanted to have the opportunity to participate in the process that helps to ensure that all of the institutions are meeting the high standards.”

Roles and Responsibilities

Inspection teams typically include at minimum three members, each of whom focuses on one of the following areas: facility operations; curatorial/animal welfare and management; and veterinary medicine. For facilities with collections including elephants or cetaceans, teams must also include an elephant or cetacean expert.

Team members spend countless hours preparing themselves, relying on a 69-page inspector’s handbook; a copy of AZA’s accreditation standards; and a comprehensive Accreditation Resource Center. They also receive extensive background materials, including the previous inspection report, from the facility they will be inspecting. During the three-to-four-day site visit, they observe the animals and inspect the entire facility as a team, with individual members spending more time in particular areas if the schedule allows. They also meet with staff at all levels as well as trustees or board members.

Adults walking through the Birmingham Zoo

As the team moves through the facility inspection and meetings, they fill out an extensive questionnaire and create a list of concerns and points of achievement. They share that list with the facility’s director at the exit interview; and send their narrative report to the Accreditation Commission, along with their recommendation of whether the applicant should be granted accreditation, tabled, or denied. The ultimate decision rests with the Commission, not the inspection team.

“You go into an inspection with a fresh set of eyes to see what the staff sees every day,” said Kelly Helmick, DVM, chief veterinarian, Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. “It’s our job to point out the problem but not suggest a solution. Our role is to show them where they differ from the standards; and then it’s up to them to determine a solution that would work for them.”

Inspectors agree that the process changed for the better when the Commission added the requirement that relevant standards be cited on the list of concerns. 

Two men talking

“When I started there was a lot of room to interpret the standards … and teams spent more time discussing what you saw,” said Helmick. “These days the standards are much more clear, and you don’t need as much time to interpret. The Accreditation Commission has done a remarkable job of removing bias from the process.”

Showing how every concern corresponds to a specific standard provides a clearer guideline for inspectors; and contributes to a more detailed and comprehensive assessment.

“For my first inspection at a large zoo with two facilities, two of us inspected the entire place in one day,” said Walczak. “Today, we would probably have four inspectors and it would take four days. The process has evolved, so it’s more rigorous and in-depth.”

Value and Benefits

Inside the bear habitat exhibit at Birmingham Zoo

Despite the amount of work involved, inspectors agree that inspections are a teaching and learning experience. In addition to helping colleagues achieve and maintain high standards, the inspectors reap numerous personal and professional benefits. 

“I never would have seen a lot of the institutions I visited. I got to see how different facilities got through issues; I got a great understanding of the standards; and I got to meet a lot of great people I never would have met,” said Bill Bryant, DVM, former senior veterinarian at Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan. “I’ve been to all kinds of facilities, large and small, and at every single one I saw how much these people cared and how dedicated they were.”

Even though accreditors focus on assessing the facilities they’re visiting, they often pick up tips from those facilities and from their fellow inspectors.

“I find that being an inspector is really personally motivating because it fosters a continuous spirit of advancement,”  said Allison Tuttle, DVM, senior vice president, zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. “I learn from my co-inspectors at every facility and I’m always thinking, ‘How can we do this better at my institution?’ I was once at an institution that had an ingenious way of labeling PVC pipes so I asked if I could take a picture of it and they said, ‘Sure!’”

Elephants at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Maylon White, division director, North Carolina Aquariums, agrees. “ I can’t remember an inspection that I came back from without learning something. I was at one place where they had a really neat technique of informing staff about emergency procedures. They had a spiral-bound flip book with tabs, with one-page quick synopses for everything from a fire evacuation to a bomb threat. Training is a tricky thing, and this book was so easy. ” He brought that idea back, created a similar tool for his own facility and is still using it.

Serving as an inspector creates an “accreditation mindset” that stays with people once they return to their own facility.

“Everyone has the same issues and we’re always thinking about how to build a better mousetrap,” said Helmick. “Inspecting makes you more aware of what’s happening on your own campus. I’m always wearing my inspector hat, and by walking around and saying, ‘This isn’t up to the standard,’ it’s a more relaxed environment. This is how staff members learn the standards. It’s my goal to guide them to the standards, and to help us become an institution that lives accreditation every day.”

Eyes on the Prize

Inspectors who have retired from their positions may remain involved in the inspection process as long as they remain current with AZA policies and practices, stay abreast of professional practices, and receive approval from the Commission. At the same time, AZA leadership places great importance on preparing zoo and aquarium staffers who want to join the inspector ranks. New potential inspectors must complete an official inspector-in-training program in which they shadow a team throughout the inspection process.

Families walking through a tunnel at Georgia Aquarium

“You need to go and watch the whole thing, observe, ask questions, and get experience before you’re on a team,” said Diebold. “I think people are absolutely flabbergasted by the amount of material we get. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to get into it. Institutions start working on their applications 18 months ahead and so there’s a lot of material, and as inspectors we have a lot of late nights. It’s really hard work, and you owe it to the institution to be prepared.”

Inspectors’ passion for the work includes an understanding of how nerve-wracking the process can be for a staff that has to prepare for inspectors who have the freedom to go everywhere, see everything, and talk to everyone. But the goal is always a positive one, something that inspectors take seriously.

“It’s a stressful process and you want things to go well,” said White. “If a person walks in [to a zoo or aquarium] and doesn’t have a good experience, that reflects on the whole profession. There are times where you can tell an organization has an overwhelmed new staff member on board who may be confused; and it’s very rewarding to say, ‘I’m not here as an enforcer, I’m here to help you.’ We want to help everyone meet the standards.”

Photo Credit: © AZA

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

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