The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium lost its accreditation with its industry’s leading accrediting body amid concerns about acquiring animals and the inappropriate business practices of former zoo managers.

Zoo officials announced Wednesday morning that they plan to appeal the decision of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the main accreditation body for zoos and aquariums in the United States and at a dozen or so. other countries.

Investigation at the Columbus Zoo:Columbus Zoo and Aquarium lost at least $ 631,000 due to improper spending by former officials

AZA’s accreditation process helps ensure that its member facilities meet industry standards that emphasize animal welfare and care, veterinary programs, conservation, education and security, the AZA website said. Accredited organizations must go through the accreditation process every five years.

“The AZA first accredited the Columbus Zoo in 1980, and as a long-standing AZA organization, we are disappointed that the (AZA Accreditation) Commission has denied our accreditation after all of the positive changes that have taken place. were made to meet AZA standards, ”Acting Columbus said. Zoo President and CEO Jerry Borin said in a written statement: “These changes were in place prior to the accreditation inspection and have been maintained ever since.”

The AZA Accreditation Commission voted on Friday to deny accreditation at the Columbus Zoo following its recent five-year routine review.

Why has the Columbus Zoo lost its accreditation?

The AZA has expressed concern about the “inappropriate financial management problems of the former officers” of the Columbus Zoo, but said the repeated transfers of animals from the zoo with non-AZA members to provide babies animals for entertainment are “more substantial and of concern”.

The recent documentary film, “The Conservation Game,” raised questions about how famous environmentalists, including longtime Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna, acquire exotic animals. The film alleges that the baby tigers and snow leopards that appeared with Hanna on late-night talk shows often did not come or return to accredited zoos, but were instead mixed among backyard breeders. and unaccredited zoos that don’t have to join the same. strict standards of animal care and rules of ethics as accredited establishments.

The zoo announced in July that it has cut ties with animal sellers that do not meet certain animal care standards.

The Hanna family shared in April that Jack Hanna was diagnosed with dementia and told The Dispatch this summer that they had not seen the documentary and would never attempt to speak on behalf of the former zoo director. .

Prior to that, Tom Stalf, former president and CEO of the zoo; and Greg Bell, former CFO, resigned after an investigation by The Dispatch detailed their extensive personal use of the zoo’s resources. Forensic audits initiated by the zoo’s board of directors have since revealed inappropriate spending and questionable business practices by the two former executives, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses for the zoo. The investigations and reviews of the Ohio Attorney General and the Ohio State Auditor are ongoing.

The AZA team that visited the zoo in its recent accreditation review welcomed the changes the zoo has made since Stalf and Bell left, and in response to concerns about its animal programs department. But the accreditation commission “wants to see that these changes can be supported,” the zoo said.

“It’s never a good day when AZA loses a member, especially a member as renowned and respected as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium,” AZA President and CEO Dan said on Wednesday. Ashe, in a written statement. “But membership in AZA is contingent on meeting our accreditation standards – the global ‘gold standard’ for modern aquariums and zoos – and our independent accreditation commission determined that Columbus did not meet these standards.

“… Given the number and severity of concerns identified by the inspection team, the Commission concluded that although Columbus is working hard to correct the problems, the zoo should not be accredited at this time,” Ashe said.

The news comes a day after the zoo named Tom Schmid, President and CEO of Texas State Aquarium, as next executive.

Schmid said he had already been briefed on AZA’s accreditation decision and had had several discussions about it.

“I was surprised,” said Schmid, who said he had helped conduct AZA inspections in the past.

“… It’s remarkable how many things they do well,” Schmid said of the Columbus Zoo. He plans to conduct his own inspection of the zoo to see if his assessment agrees with that of the AZA.

Schmid said the zoo’s problems with animal acquisition and management’s missteps “have been dealt with very effectively.”

“This is why I am a little puzzled as to the result,” he said.

AZA’s Ashe called the zoo’s decision to hire Schmid “welcome and encouraging,” but reiterated that its Accreditation Board felt “that more time will be needed to allow these and other changes to occur. to take effect “.

Michael Webber, who directed “The Conservation Game,” said the changes made by the Columbus Zoo this year in response to the issues raised in the film are “quite dramatic.”

“The public statements they have made are very encouraging, and I look forward to giving this new leadership a chance to right the wrongs we have seen in the past,” he said. “At the same time, it is clear that AZA had no choice but to take the measures it took.”

“… I hope that as a result of this film, our investigation, (and) the actions of AZA, we will arrive at a more ethical place in animal welfare, and that in the end reckons the animals we love will benefit from these actions, ”said Webber.

Why is the loss of accreditation important?

AZA accreditation builds public confidence that a facility meets or exceeds current industry standards. It also distinguishes the facilities of for-profit animal menageries.

Accreditation also impacts eligibility for funding and grants from certain foundations, corporations, or other sources of funding, and exempts institutions from certain government requirements, particularly at the state level.

Accredited AZA members are also eligible to participate in animal exchange programs with other member zoos and aquariums and AZA animal conservation programs.

For the general public or average zoo goers, AZA accreditation could be akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, Schmid said. But the process is meticulous, inspecting the care, welfare and safety of animals, an institution’s finances and more, he said: “All of these things, quite frankly, the zoo and the Columbus aquarium are doing very well. “

AZA accreditation remains “the gold standard for zoological institutions in the United States,” said Carney Anne Nasser, who has been featured in “The Conservation Game” and is a research fellow in the Animal Law & Policy program at Harvard University .

“Without it, an installation loses some credibility, perhaps even the trust of the public, and certainly access to the animals that are part of the AZA community and the collections that institutions rely on to breed and to people. their exhibits, ”Nasser said.

Allegations in “The Conservation Game,” that the Columbus Zoo worked with unaccredited backyard breeders and roadside zoos, suggest that the organization violated AZA standards for years. years, said Nasser and Webber.

“For years, it seems Jack Hanna and the Columbus Zoo basically thumbed their noses at AZA,” Webber said. “… I have a feeling they thought the rules didn’t apply to them.”

“It’s really important that AZA does something now,” said Nasser. “But these statutes and ethical standards have been there, in place for many years, and apparently someone was not paying enough attention.”

And after?

The AZA has three possible outcomes when evaluating an institution for accreditation: grant, deny, or establish.

The AZA may file for accreditation of an institution if it “determines that certain conditions must be met or additional information must be submitted before the institution can be considered to meet accreditation standards,” said the AZA website.

The AZA must believe that the institution is capable of meeting these standards within one year and requires a follow-up inspection at the end of that year.

Borin of the zoo said the organization believes it meets AZA accreditation standards. But filing the Columbus Zoo accreditation would be a fair outcome, and they hope AZA lands as a result of the appeal process, Borin said.

The zoo noted that the AZA accreditation team praised the facility for its exemplary work and that its vote was not unanimous.

“The bad decisions of a handful of people should not negate the good work of this team and the contribution of staff members to AZA through committee work and leadership roles,” said Borin. “No one who currently works at the zoo has had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in today. We have recognized the wrongdoing of the past. We have also made changes and updated policies. to make sure that doesn’t happen again. ”

The zoo appeal must be filed by October 30.

AZA must decide within 45 days of receiving the zoo’s appeal whether to grant it. If granted, the AZA Board of Directors will hear the appeal and choose to uphold or overturn the Board of Review’s decision.

If the denial is confirmed, the Columbus Zoo will be able to apply for AZA accreditation again next September.

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