Don’t Be Fooled! The Importance of Accreditation in Zoos

Zoos are a common destination, whether you are a human or a dinosaur.

They seem like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Who wouldn’t want to play with a tiger cub? Or swim with dolphins? Or ride an elephant? It’s the perfect Instagram picture or story to tell at Christmas.

Roadside menageries are reminiscent of first zoos. People have kept private collections of wild animals for thousands of years. These menageries began as a means to showcase power and wealth. Artifacts and wall carvings from Egypt and Mesopotamia show evidence of menageries from as early as 2500 BC. They tell tales of expeditions into distant lands to bring back exotic animals like elephants, giraffes, birds, monkeys, and dolphins. These ancient zoos, like their modern equivalents, hired handlers to care for their animals.

Modern zoos first began to emerge in the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, zoos became a vessel for zoological research. Scientists began to want to learn more about animals and ecology. Zoos allowed them to study anatomy and behavior. Around this time, animal enclosures began to resemble their natural habitats rather than stark cages.

These early zoos resembled living museums. While enclosures were designed to look like a natural setting, they were very small. The zoos were crammed with as many different species as was possible. The purpose of zoos at the time was to showcase as many different animals to the public as possible.

Today, there are many different types of zoos. Some still resemble the zoos from the Age of Enlightenment. Others took the steps needed to value animal welfare over animal quantity. All of these zoos have radically differing views on the purpose of a zoo and how the animals are to be treated and housed. Some zoos focus on profit and entertainment while others are dedicated to education and conservation.

But how can you tell the difference?

I know you’re thinking about when you binge-watched Tiger King a few months ago. The docuseries made it pretty clear that many of these roadside attractions do not provide their animals with adequate care. But some offenders were more obvious than others. Luckily, zoo accreditation can provide some insight.

Most zoos are accredited by different third-party organizations. The accrediting organization speaks volumes to the level of care of the animals and ongoing mission of the zoo. The type of accreditation gives insight to what goes on behind the scenes, rules about breeding and enrichment, the level of contact with animals, education parameters, the type of research permitted, and the level of dedication to conservation efforts.

There are three main accrediting organizations in the United States:

  • The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). AZA is considered to be the most prestigious accreditation, known in the industry at the gold standard. AZA accreditation is a long and pricey process, which is limiting for many small facilities. You can read all of the parameters here, but AZA boils down to research-based animal care and husbandry, proactive conservation, and a dedication to education. As Rachel Garner of “Why Animals Do The Thing” described, “A facility that has an AZA accreditation has been measured against the professional standards and best practices in the field and has been found to uphold them.”
  • The Zoological Association of America (ZAA). ZAA is the second-most-common accreditation found in the US. ZAA accreditation is a less expensive process, making it more accessible for small facilities. The biggest difference between AZA and ZAA is the opinion of contactless-based husbandry with animals, most notably elephants. Protected contact, which is promoted by AZA, is when there is a barrier between a handler and the animal. Free contact allows the handler and animal to share the same unrestricted space. ZAA writes that “While ZAA does not promote ‘protected contact’, we believe that decision regarding protected contact with elephants should be left to the governing body of each organization.” Depending on the facility, ZAA can choose to allow full contact (with restrictions, of course) experiences for guests with Crocodylia, carnivores, some chimpanzees, gibbons, and gorillas, elephants, rhinos, and some constrictors. Some zoo facilities choose to switch from AZA to ZAA accreditation in order to maintain their guest animal experience programs. However, ZAA prohibits guest interactions with baby Class I animals, which notably includes great primates, many big cats, wolves, elephants, and rhinos. See a full list of Class I animals here. ZAA dictates, “ZAA does acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which a facility can present a baby, juvenile or program animal to the public for photos and encounters in a reasonable, but intermittent manner. Those animals would be a part of the facility’s management collection plan and would not be part of a revolving door business of animal encounters/photos for a fee.”
  • The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). Unlike AZA and ZAA, GFAS focuses on accrediting sanctuaries, rescue centers, and rehabilitation centers. These facilities require a different type of oversight and parameters due to their different mission. The animals housed at these facilities are not there due to internal breeding programs or education. Rather, these animals are rescues, some from the wild others from private owner environments. The end goal of these animals differs from case to case. Some animals are able to be released, while others find their way to other zoos and aquariums. Still others live out their lives at the rescue facility or sanctuary. It is important to note that the term “rescue” can be used by anyone, even if they have no proof of actually rescuing animals or professional background. “Rescue” is often used to legitimize private endeavors and roadside attractions. Before supporting or visiting a rescue facility, it’s very important to look up their accreditations. As GFAS says, “Not all sanctuaries are created equal. Animal care is a poorly regulated industry, and thousands of organizations worldwide which describe themselves as “sanctuaries” or “rescues” do not provide quality or humane care for their animals. For all people invested in the welfare of captive animals, including donors, grantmakers, supporters and legislators, there is a shared desire to differentiate true sanctuaries. Through our evaluation process, GFAS can ensure that those designated as GFAS-Verified or Accredited uphold the highest standards for the animals in their care.”

Each of these organizations has different parameters, ramifications, and views of zoos. It’s important to know which accreditations align with your own standards. Before I visit a zoo or aquarium, I always look at what accreditations are held or why a facility might have lost an accreditation.

Roadside Attractions

We talked about professional zoos. Let’s talk about private menageries and roadside attractions. Yes, I’m talking about what you saw in Tiger King. Many of these small facilities don’t hold any accreditations. Now not having an accreditations doesn’t necessarily mean that the animals are mistreated, but there is no third party oversight holding the facility to specific standards. That means that these private facilities can range from high standards all the way down to shady and abusive practices.

Before supporting a non-accredited organization, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of their animals’ husbandry, daily practices, and the best practices for the industry.

Garner summed it up. “That being said, there are two major red flags for unaccredited facilities aside from obviously sub-par care and sick animals. Non-AZA facilities will never be participants in breeding programs for endangered species (called Species Survival Plans or SSPs), nor will they ever play a role in the conservation efforts led by AZA or ZAA facilities. Do not support facilities that claim these things falsely in order to boost the perception of their credibility.”

Some of these roadside attractions do hold accreditations. But it’s very important to research what that accreditations comes from. Just as the term rescue can be used loosely, so can the word accreditations. In Tiger King, Joe Exotic claimed that his facility was accredited. However, a quick internet search showed that his accreditation was purchased accreditation that did not require oversight. At the time of writing this blog article, GW Zoo has been closed and their website does not mention any accreditation.

Let’s talk about the other star in the docuseries: Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue. In the series, Baskin talks about the difference between her rescue operation compared to Exotic’s menagerie. The series doesn’t film Big Cat Rescue in a bright light, but the facilities have held a GFAS accreditation since 2009. I can’t speak to any husband-murdering drama, but the facility itself does meet standards and has maintained those standards for over a decade.

What does all of this mean?

Not every small facility is a bad facility, but it is important to do your homework. If taken just from popular media, Big Cat Rescue would fall under the same category as GW Zoo and Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari. The big difference between all three of these facilities is third party accreditation. Third party evaluations means that visitors aren’t dependent on the facilities’ good word. Upholding accreditation ensures high-quality care for the animals, making the behind-the-scenes transparent. By supporting accredited facilities, you know exactly what you are supporting. You are supporting conservation, animal welfare, and education.

My Two Cents

A tiger at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. Photo used with permission by Anna’s Photography: Putting You In The Spotlight.

I have been interested in zoos for as long as I can remember. I grew up wanting to be a zoo keeper, focusing on caring for elephants. I read every zoological book and magazine I could get my hands on, from Ranger Rick to Jungle Jack (Jack Hanna’s autobiography).

As I got older, I finally had the opportunity to begin volunteering at zoos. It was then that I began to research the differences between zoos and accreditations. Before I visit a zoo, I always look at the accreditation. I am a huge supporter of AZA facilities. They maintain and update their standards based on current research rather than relying on historical or profit-generating practices. Their main mission is natural conservation and education. I could list all of the stipulations required by AZA that makes their accreditation the industry gold standard, but the most important takeaway for me is how AZA values the welfare of animals over profit. This is most evident by their stance on contactless interactions. A huge money maker for many animal facilities is guest interactions with animals. Think about dolphin encounters, petting big cats, and riding elephants.

We have learned a lot over the past two decades about the impact full contact interactions (both by guests and handlers). It took us long enough. AZA has led the way in making sweeping changes across their facilities to address these concerns. These changes required zoos to cut some of their most profitable programs, such as swimming with dolphins, or making expensive renovations to facilities, like installing expensive contactless barriers in the elephant enclosures. It’s rare that we see any organization choose wellbeing over profit. That is a mission I can support.

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