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Monday, June 22, 2015

Three Little Letters

"I sent the club a wire stating, "Please accept my resignation.  I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member."
- Groucho Marx

It’s hard to say for sure how many zoos and aquariums there are in the United States, partially because of the difficulty in defining exactly what a zoo or aquarium is and is not.  They come in all varieties – big and small, public and private, for-profit and non-profit.  Some exhibit only natives, others display animals from around the world.  Some feature all sorts of animals, but some only display birds, or fish, or insects.   

It’s a relatively small number of these institutions – somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of them, depending on how you want to count them – that are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the AZA.   The AZA is a non-governmental organization that is devoted to representing, recognizing, and supporting what it perceives to be the best of the best of America’s zoos and aquariums*.

AZA members are selected following an intense accreditation process, conducted every five years (more often if the standards of a facility are called into question).  The institution is visited by a team of inspectors from other zoos and aquariums, who look the place over top and bottom, inside and out.  They see everything that the public would see – how the animals look, the state of the enclosures, the public areas of the campus.  They also go behind the scenes and delve deep into recordkeeping, protocols, governance, educational programming, veterinary reports, and finances.  Staff members are interviewed, either individually or in group settings.  Every aspect of the zoo – from how many animal escape drills it’s conducted recently to how much enrichment is done to how much the staff is paid – is evaluated carefully.   A new requirement (still more of a suggestion at this point) pushes zoos and aquariums to give a certain amount of money to field conservation programs annually.

Later that year, at the annual AZA meeting, a representative from the zoo or aquarium appears before the AZA accreditation committee to hear their report.  A facility may either pass accreditation, fail it, or be tabled, meaning that it has a lot of issues and is given a year to get it together before being re-inspected.

AZA standards can be a hassle, and they are always increasing, or new requirements are added.  What makes it worth the headache?  By belonging to AZA, a zoo or aquarium becomes part of a network that can achieve more than it could by working alone.  Some of the best examples of this are the breeding programs, or Species Survival Plans, conducted by AZA.  Multiple facilities working together can have better luck managing animal populations by pooling their animals and their spaces.  AZA zoos seldom buy or sell animals with each other – instead, they move them about as needed, either for genetics, exhibits, or social groupings.  AZA also provides a lobbying voice for zoos and aquariums, as well as training and professional development.  Recently, AZA facilities have also been more aggressive and more proactive in conservation messaging, working together on themed campaigns to raise awareness about key issues threatening wildlife around the world.
Always a good sign to look for on your next zoo or aquarium visit

There are reasons why a zoo or aquarium might opt not to join AZA.  Most obvious of these is that they wouldn’t meet the standards, and reaching those standards would be too expensive or too difficult, especially for a small, privately owned facility.  Others might choose not to because they dislike the added level of restriction and oversight.  If a facility plans of breeding and selling animals, for instance, or wants to have visitor-animal interactions that AZA feels is unsafe, they may decide they are better off on their own.  Some private zoo owners look with scorn on all the regulations that AZA has; I'm remembering one individual in particular, interviewed as part of Morgan Spurlock's Inside Man episode on zoos, sneeringly describing AZA as a "country club for zoos."  Again, the vast majority of zoos in the US are not accredited by AZA.  Some are members of a different accrediting organization (the confusingly named ZAA).  Most are on their own.

It would be unfair of me to flat out say that I only visit AZA-accredited facilities, though it is near the truth.  Certainly almost all of the zoos and aquariums I have done reviews of so far are AZA members.  It would be fair to say that I will go unhesitatingly to any AZA member; non-AZA members I ponder and vet to make sure they are worth supporting.  Some most definitely are; Sylvan Heights Bird Park, for instance, is not accredited (by choice of the management), but it has the best waterfowl enclosures and breeding programs that I’ve seen anywhere, in or out of AZA.  Others are the sorts of institutions that the slur “roadside zoo” was made for.

I would love to eventually see more and more non-AZA member institutions join the AZA, and slowly but surely it seems to be happening.  In many cases, I believe that the animals in those collections benefit more from the heightened standards and professional peer review.  Also, I believe AZA would benefit from having them – the more members, the more animal professionals working together, the greater a force for good zoos and aquariums can be.

*AZA is primarily an accrediting organization for the USA, though it does have a handful of members in other countries.  Other geographic regions have their own accrediting bodies - BIAZA (United Kingdom and Ireland), ARAZPA (Australasia), CAZA (Canada), etc.

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