How To Understand Zoo Accreditation
A facility’s accreditation status tells you a lot of information about aspects of the organization you can’t normally see or access as a guest.
How To Understand Zoo Accreditation
July 4, 2016 - Rachel Garner
This article was updated on July 18th, 2016 in regards to supplemental information provided by the ZAA regarding their accreditation process, dually-accredited facilities with the AZA, and professional memberships held by past and present AZA members.
What is Accreditation?
In general, "accreditation" means official recognition and approval of a zoo, aquarium, wildlife park or sanctuary by a group of experts. The definition of such experts is often chosen independently by each accreditation organization, but includes people with decades of experience in fields such as animal management, veterinary science (as pertinent to the species in the facility), and conservation.
Why is it Important?
A facility’s accreditation status tells you a lot of information about aspects of the organization you can’t normally see or access as a guest. It can tell you about things such as ongoing research and conservation efforts, rules about breeding and enrichment, level of contact allowed with the animals by staff and guests, and also about governance, organization and financial aspects. Accreditation is not the be-all and end-all of the captive animal world - there are definitely valid reasons that a good facility might choose to not pursue accreditation - but seeing if they have one and what it is is a great place to start when you’re trying to learn more about a place you’d like to visit or support.
Any public animal exhibit in the United States is subject to federal licensing and yearly inspection under the purview of the USDA, and they’re also held accountable by any American law that pertains to animals in their collection, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Animal Welfare Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This oversight is mandatory and non-negotiable. Facilities that don’t follow USDA regulations or violate other federal laws are cited accordingly and can be fined or shut down for non-compliance.
Facilities can also opt for accreditation by independent organizations in order to gain notoriety associated with that standing. Accreditation brings more benefits than just a seal of approval - it can include access to breeding programs, organizational resources, conferences and more. Some facilities are accredited by more than one organization. Each type of accreditation a facility pursues tells you different information about the goals, priorities, function, and politics of the organization. While the accreditation of a facility is going to be based on the quality of animal care, education, and management, there is definitely some politics involved in which accreditation a facility chooses to pursue and the accrediting organizations they become involved with.
The main accrediting organizations for zoological facilities, aquariums, wildlife parks, sanctuaries, and rescue/rehab centers in the United States are:
- The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
- The Zoological Association of America (ZAA)
- The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS)
To start, let’s look at each type of accreditation and figure out what it tells you. Then we’ll talk politics.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums
AZA accreditation is often considered to be the ‘best’ accreditation a zoological facility can have, due to their incredibly high standards and stringent requirements for accreditation. Their accreditation standards can be found here, if you’re interested in reading 104 pages of small text. They’re the ‘main’ accrediting agency in the United States, which herein means that most of the really big-name facilities you’ve heard of are part of the AZA. However, only around 10% of the close to 3000 organizations overseen by the USDA have AZA accreditation - so they’re definitely selective.
Accreditation through the AZA is a long and often expensive process for facilities - sometimes the fee can be as high as $15k, and the decision of whether the facility has been accredited is not announced until the yearly conference each fall. The AZA accreditation process must be redone in full every 5 years - there is no re-accreditation process.
Facilities may also apply to be ‘certified related facilities’, which allows those with a slightly broader scope of mission and/or different functional practices than a zoo/aquarium to be associated with the AZA and held to the same institutional standard. Many of these certified related facilities are not open to the public on a regular basis and can include rescues, rehabs, and wildlife conservation groups.
What does AZA accreditation mean?
From the AZA accreditation standard:
“Zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) are continuously evolving. A primary goal of AZA institutions is to achieve the highest standard of welfare for the animals in our care. Standards are constantly being raised, ensuring that animals in AZA institutions are receiving the best possible care from highly qualified staff, in modern facilities that represent best practice in our profession. 21st century AZA-accredited institutions and certified related facilities are expected to be leaders in the field and to embrace the highest quality facilities, programs, and staff available. Animals must be well cared for and housed in appropriate settings that provide an educational experience for visitors, and meet the animals’ physical, psychological, and social needs. Animals must be managed as appropriate for long-term genetic viability of the species, which means careful planning of resource allocation, ex-situ breeding, and ex-situ/in-situ conservation and research. The phrase “modern zoological practices and philosophies” refers to practices and philosophies that are commonly accepted as the norm by the profession. The word “practices” represents the tangible while “philosophies” refers to an overall perspective. AZA-accredited institutions and certified related facilities must be incorporating modern zoological practices and philosophies as basic tenets. All AZA accredited institutions and Certified Related facilities must follow all local, state, and federal laws and/or regulations. Some AZA standards may be more stringent than existing laws and/or regulations and, in these cases, the AZA standards must be met. Primarily, AZA standards are performance standards (i.e., measuring the level of achievement considered acceptable to fulfill a performance characteristic, and choice in method for meeting the goal). This differs from engineering standards, where exact and precisely measured steps are required to fulfill an engineering characteristic, with little or no variation in method for meeting the goal.” (Preamble, 2016 Accreditation Standards and Related Policies)
AZA Accreditation Involves:
“The Accreditation Commission evaluates every zoo or aquarium to make sure it meets AZA's standards for animal management and care, including living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition. We also make sure that animals are provided with enrichment, which stimulates each animal's natural behavior and provides variety in their daily routine.
The Accreditation Commission also evaluates the veterinary program, involvement in conservation and research, education programs, safety policies and procedures, security, physical facilities, guest services, and the quality of the institution's staff. And because a zoo or aquarium needs a strong foundation in order to continue to meet high standards, accreditation also evaluates each institution's finances, its governing authority, and its support organization. In other words, we look at everything!” (AZA.org - What is Accreditation?)
AZA’s accreditation standards are intensely detailed. A quick skim of the 104 pages of standards and related policies - tiny text, comprehensive bullet points that often refer to other documents - animal care requirements get a solid 5 pages, veterinary standards get 2, participation in conservation efforts has a solid page of requirements, education programming gets 2, research & governing authority get a half page each, safety itself has five pages. There’s a 29-page set of requirements specifically for elephant care and husbandry, down to the details of managing behavioral and physiological changes due to seasonality, appropriate skin care standards, and dietary requirements down to the appropriate percentage of vitamins in prepared diets for every life stage. There are about 15 pages of standards, philosophy and regulatory information for animal ambassadors and public interactions with the collection. The last 30 pages cover professional ethics and accountability, the rights of collection specimens both living and dead, and administrative policies.
AZA Accreditation Says That:
In order for a facility to receive AZA accreditation, they must submit a very lengthy written application. If all the paperwork is in order, they’re then visited by a committee of 2-4 people for a multi-day inspection and looked over in detail. The facility is studied closely to make sure the facility embodies the ethos of the organization for animal management, research, and conservation as well as meeting all accreditation standards for safety, cleanliness, proper protocol, veterinary care, internal organization, and more. They then prepare a report that goes back to a 16-person accreditation committee comprised of experts in the field who study it and make the final decision. 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.
It also means that the facility:
- Participates in AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, which involves identifying threats and creating actions plans, utilizing corporate partnerships to develop new resources, and increasing public engagement with conservation efforts.
- Participates in Species Survival Plan Programs to manage and conserve threatened and endangered species through breeding and transfer plans that ensure the sustainability of healthy, diverse and demographically varied populations.
- Participates in Taxon Advisory Groups in order to best manage and conserve entire taxa both in-situ and ex-situ.
- Participates in reintroduction programs for zoo-raised or rehabilitated animals that are released into their natural habitats in order to stabilize or re-establish threatened populations.
- Participates in numerous large-scale conservation initiatives across the globe, such as sustainable palm oil efforts and Project Piaba.
- Has access to the AZA Animal Exchange (access to specimens from other AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums for loan or breeding);
- Has opportunities for collaboration and consultation with AZA colleagues who are top experts in their fields.
- Gives staff access to yearly conferences and library databases of material for professional advancement and skill-shares, often funded by facilities in order to help staff continue to learn and grow.
The Zoological Association of America:
ZAA Accreditation is the ‘other’ accreditation you’ll see in the United States. It is not often that a facility will have both ZAA and AZA accreditation, but it does happen. As of this article being updated in July of 2015, 5 of the 63 ZAA accredited facilities hold dual accreditation with AZA: African Safari Wildlife Park, the Fort Worth Zoo, Fossil Rim, Wildlife Center, Lion County Safari, and the San Antonio Zoo. (ZAA - Accredited Facilities)(AZA - Accredited Facilities)(1). Most facilities that can get AZA accreditation will not choose to apply for only ZAA accreditation - those than can will apply for both. This is because the perks and reputation boost of being AZA affiliated is generally considered to outstrip the perks of being ZAA. Recently, however, some facilities are choosing to move away from AZA accreditation due to differences in opinion regarding free-contact elephant management; ZAA believes that "accredited zoos provide superior animal care and management when allowed to tailor their husbandry protocols to the specific needs of their collection. (...) and believe that the decision regarding free contact with elephants should be left to the governing body of each institution" (ZAA - Standards). whereas AZA requires all their facilities to practice protected-contact management. (2)
ZAA was formed in 2005 as the merger of two pre-existing organizations - The International Society of Zooculturists and the United Zoological Association. The ISZ was founded by one of the co-founders of the AZA in 1987 in order to deal more directly with “animals only” issues for zoological facilities, without getting involved in the business aspects of facility management. The United Zoological Association was created in the year 2000 by people in both private and publicly owned animal collections that felt there were issues that were not being addressed by ‘other organizations’ (a phrase which here pretty heavily indicates - although it’s rarely said directly - that they didn’t like the way AZA was handling things and felt there needed to be an alternate accrediting organization facilities could work with). In 2003, ISZ and UZA became sister organizations and merged into the singular Zoological Association of America (History of ZAA).
In order to be eligible for facility membership and accreditation, the facility must engage in one or more of the following:
- Exhibits exotic and/or wild animals to the public and has an educational and conservation message. The facility may be open to the public with regular hours or by appointment. Public visitation may be by facility staff guided or self-guided tours.
- Educational outreach programs using exotic and/or wild animals.
- Breeds exotic/or wild animals for conservation purposes or supplying zoological facilities (3)
ZAA accreditation has a number of steps to it. First, a facility itself must be come a member of the organization: this requires an application, peer review of practices, site inspection, and approval from the membership committee along with a $250 fee. Once a facility is accepted as a member, it must also apply for professional membership: this requires a separate application, which is also peer reviewed and requires the approval of both the membership committee and the ZAA board. After a three-month waiting period, professional member facilities can apply for accreditation: this requires another application, a $500 deposit for the inspection and a $200 application fee. The site is inspected again, and then all of the related information is examined by the accreditation committee. If that all goes well, the information is passed to the ZAA board for final approval. Annual membership dues for facilities will be $2,500 beginning January 1, 2017 (they currently stand at $750). ZAA facilities must reapply for accreditation every five years. (4)
What does ZAA Accreditation Mean?
According to the ZAA's about page:
“ZAA's mission is to promote responsible ownership, management, conservation, and propagation of animals in both private and public facilities through professional standards in husbandry, animal care, safety and ethics.” (ZAA - About)
The Mission Page goes into more detail about the organization’s purpose and structure:
As a trade organization to serve the needs of our members.
Protect and defend the right to own exotic and domestic animals, in both privately funded and publicly funded facilities, under proper professional care, husbandry and safety standards which are rigorously observed and maintained.
Defend our accredited facilities against false allegations, those with political agendas, and mischaracterizations.
Promote legal and ethical methods for sustaining captive wildlife.
Encourage responsible conservation of genetics through cooperative breeding programs including both privately funded and publicly funded facilities.
Promote high standards and ethics through accreditation programs.
Educate the media, policymakers and the public through advocacy and adherence to best practices.
Establish professional standards for husbandry, animal care, and safety.
Ensure accurate animal and medical records by our members.
Enhance the survival of species by the use of professional methods.
Ensure an appropriate, safe, and quality existence for animals in captive environments.
ZAA Members are ethically bound to support and implement the Mission, Purpose, and Objectives of ZAA and to:
Promote wildlife conservation to our visitors and society at large.
Cooperate with colleagues and the broader conservation community to assist in animal propagation, husbandry, care and conservation in both the managed and wild populations.
Possess and abide by all required federal, state, city, county, local, international and any other related permits.
Act in accordance with all federal, state, city, county, local and international laws and regulations.
Conduct all affairs ethically and legally with a high degree of professionalism, honesty, integrity and fairness to all concerned
ZAA Accreditation Involves:
Here’s the link to the ZAA accreditation standards. They’re 56 pages long and set up differently from AZA standards. AZA standards are often very general guidelines with the exception of specific species, but the ZAA standards start by sorting all animals into three ‘classes’ of wildlife according to their potential lethality, and these classes dictate everything from the minimum perimeter containment a facility housing them must have to the amount of contact staff and guest are allowed to have with the animals.
Outside of the requirements for different classes of animals, facilities are graded in many categories, including the following:
- Physical Facility
- Husbandry and Animal Care Practices
- Record Keeping and Health Care Records
- Knowledge of Animals by Personnel
- Animal Diet and Nutrition
- Facility Security
- Veterinary Care
- Licensing and Permits
- Safety Plans
The stated objectives of the ZAA accreditation process are listed by the organization as:
- Professional standards for husbandry and animal care practices.
- Maintain accurate animal and medical records.
- Enhance the survival of species by the use of appropriate methods.
- Maintain an appropriate, safe, and quality existence for animals kept in a captive environment.
- Safety of humans, both staff and visitors, from injury and disease.”
ZAA Accreditation Says That:
In order to receive ZAA accreditation, a facility has been visited by two professional members of the ZAA and found to meet all requirements laid out in the accreditation standards linked above. There is no set time for the facility evaluation for ZAA, instead the length of time needed for the inspection is determined by the size, how many animals the facility has, how many specific enclosures need to be looked at, and anything else the visiting committee deems of import. The report of the inspection team is submitted to an accreditation committee. The committee can provide feedback for the applicant to respond to, and then the final decision on accreditation is made by the board of directors. A facility that has ZAA accreditation has been found to uphold all standards and objectives in accordance with ZAA requirements, and accreditation is predicated on maintaining ZAA facility membership, maintaining all required permits and abiding by all applicable municipal, county, state, and federal regulations.
Facilities that are part of the ZAA also have:
- Access to the Quarterly ZAA Newsletter & Journal
- The opportunity to submit articles for the newsletter
- An invitation to the ZAA Annual Conference
- Ability to apply for facility accreditation
- The opportunity to exchange ideas with other members
- Legislative updates affecting the industry
- Access to the Members Only site, which includes the newsletter archives for the ZAA and the International Society of Zooculturists
- Access to view and list on the Available and Wanted Animal List.
It means they can also choose to allow:
Full contact (free-contact with staff temporarily not in control of the animal) for guests with Carnivora and Crocodylia that weigh not more than twenty-five (25) pounds; Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas that are not less than six (6) months of age and weigh not more than twenty-five (25) pounds; Gibbons and siamangs not less than four (4) months of age and not more than two (2) years of age; Elephants and rhinos as approved. Reptilia other than Class I Crocodylia: Large constrictors not more than ten (10) feet in length or sixty (60) pounds in weight.
Incidental contact (staff in control restraining or holding the animal) for guests with Carnivora and Crocodylia that weigh not more than 40 pounds; Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas that are not less than six (6) months of age and weigh not more than 40 pounds; Gibbons and siamangs that are not less than four (4) months of age and not more than two (2) years of age; Elephants and rhinos under direct control of handlers. Reptilia other than Class I Crocodylia: Large constrictors more than ten (10) feet in length or sixty (60) pounds in weight must have two trained handlers plus an additional handler for every additional five (5) feet in length. (ZAA.org - Accreditation)
While there is no specific set of requirements in the accreditation policies regarding animal ambassador programs, all facilities are required to provide Standard Operating Procedures for all of their ambassador animals and programs to the accreditation community for review during application. All industry standards must be followed and each program is taken into individual consideration regarding the specific animals and activities involved.
Each ZAA facility is allowed to determine their own contact method (e.g. free contact, protected contact) with elephants in their collection and tailor their husbandry protocols to the specific needs of their animals.
ZAA does not encourage the breeding of any hybridized animals, and while they acknowledge that it can occasionally happen in mixed species herds or flocks, they strongly condemn and will cite any facilities who purposefully breed hybrids for ethics violations. (6) Specifically, they condemn cross-species hybridization that would not occur naturally in the wild:
- Tigons / Ligers (lion x tiger)
- Lepjag (leopard x jaguar)
- Zedonk / Zorse (horse / mule x zebra)
ZAA holds that "breeding cross species hybrids has no conservation value and conveys the wrong message to the general public about the real need for breeding and maintaining endangered species." Subspecies hybridization is not subject to the same condemnation, and it is acknowledged that there are times at which subspecies crosses may be necessary to keep a species from going extinct or reaching a genetic dead-end.
The breeding of color morphs individuals (e.g. white tigers, white lions, white pythons) is allowed in ZAA institutions, as they are a draw for the public. They are allowed to be bred and exhibited so long as the animals are not promoted as a separate subspecies, either in regards to conservation or breeding efforts. (7)
ZAA members are not allowed to intentionally participate in cub petting or photo-op interactions with baby Class I animals and all primates. Their statement on it is as follows:
"No ZAA professional member or accredited facility shall participate in intentionally supplying or acquiring non-domestic baby or juvenile animals to be used on a temporary basis for brief encounters and/or photos with the general public. 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." (8)
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries:
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is the equivalent accrediting organization for sanctuaries, rescue centers, and rehabilitation centers. These facilities need separate oversight and regulation from zoological facilities because their missions, day-to-day function, and revenue streams are entirely different than those of even non-profit zoos. This type of accreditation is especially important because ‘rescue’ is an appellation that requires no proof or professional background to use, and it’s important for people to be able to distinguish between high-quality facilities and private excuses for backyard menageries.
The mission of GFAS is simply to ‘help sanctuaries help animals.’
GFAS was incorporated in 2007 by a number of leaders from different sectors of the animal world: Born Free USA, the Humane Society of the United States, the Captive Wild Animal Protection Campaign, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Although some of the founding members hailed from the more radical animal rights advocacy groups, they banded together to create an organization that advocates for the welfare of captive wild animals in well-researched, effective and practical ways. In 2009, The Association of Sanctuaries (a main driving force in the creation of a larger, global accreditation program) disbanded as GFAS went public. The Captive Wild Animal Protection Campaign (CWAPC) also became a program run by GFAS at that point in time (GFAS - Timeline).
Currently, GFAS does much more than just accredit responsible facilities across the globe. They also counsel organizations for financial planning to help ensure stability, assist the placement of abandoned or displaced animals, fundraise for sanctuaries in need, and actively work to improve education in the sanctuary community through webinars, workshops and resources for staff at participating institutions. (GFAS - FAQ). They also continue to run and promote CWAPC, which educates “the public, policy makers and media about the possession, use and trade of captive wildlife.” They promote the program as “a source of sound research and accurate, compelling data, as well as a portal to effective campaigns on behalf of captive wildlife worldwide” (GFAS - CWAPC).
What does GFAS Accreditation Mean?
The GFAS’ accreditation page introduces their purpose as such:
“Not all sanctuaries are created equal – There are thousands of entities worldwide that describe themselves as a “sanctuary” or “rescue” for displaced, exotic, equine and farm animals. However, the quality of animal care and sustainability of the organization varies widely among them. It is a poorly regulated industry, in which facilities that keep animals in deplorable conditions have the same designation as those of the highest quality.
For all people invested in the welfare of captive animals — donors, grantmakers, supporters and legislators, there is shared desire to differentiate the best 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.
Our mission is to help sanctuaries help animals. As such, any organization worldwide may apply to receive accreditation or verification status that meets our eligibility criteria. GFAS also stands ready to be of assistance to any accredited or verified sanctuary which runs into difficulties. However, we work to prevent such difficulties by providing organizations with standards of operations, educational resources and mentorship” (GFAS - For Sanctuaries).
GFAS accredits/verifies three different types of facilities - all required to be non-profit /non-commercial - with a different definition of structure and function for each: sanctuaries, rescue centers, and rehabilitation centers. The definitions of these are as such:
“A sanctuary is an establishment that provides lifetime care for animals that have been abused, injured, abandoned, or are otherwise in need. The animals may come from sources including, but not limited to, private owners, research laboratories, government authorities, the entertainment industry, and zoos.”
“A rescue center is an establishment that takes in animals and cares for them temporarily, with the goal of placing them in permanent ownership or foster care with approved members of the public, or with accredited or verified sanctuaries. Animals that may be outplaced by a rescue center to members of the public include domestic equines, some farmed animals, some birds and some reptiles, as permitted by law in the nation and locality in which the rescue center operates.”
“A rehabilitation center is an establishment that takes in wildlife temporarily for the purpose of rehabilitating them so that they can be released to the wild in their native environments. The rehabilitation center has a written reintroduction protocol in place and identified locations in which the animals can be released, and which follows release/reintroduction guidelines produced by national or international bodies and the GFAS standards.”
The GFAS Accreditation Process:
GFAS offers two different types of recognition - verification and accreditation. Verification is less stringent and examines mostly animal care and management.
GFAS-verified facilities are required at minimum to adhere to a specific set of policies about captive breeding (no), tours (cannot be self-guided and must minimize stress), animal removal from enclosures (only for medical reasons), and public having contact with animals (banned, except for limited exceptions for adoption/foster programs). (GFAS - Definitions)
They also must demonstrate:
“Adherence to standards on animal care including housing, veterinary care, nutrition, animal well-being and handling policies, as well as standards on physical facilities, records and staff safety, confirmed by an extensive questionnaire, site visit, and interviews
Ethical practices in fundraising
Ethical acquisition and disposition of animals
Restrictions on research, limited to non-invasive projects that provide a health, welfare or conservation benefit to the individual animal and/or captive animal management and/or population conservation
The existence of a contingency plan if the property where the sanctuary is located is not owned by the sanctuary or its governing organization.”
Accreditation requires all of the above, as well as being rigorously screened for compliance with standards involving governance, staffing, finance, education and outreach, safety policies, protocols and training.
All facility applications are judged based on the GFAS standards of excellence in operation and animal care, which pertain specifically to the type of animals a facility handles - there are 25 total sets of standards, listed here. Each set of standards addresses:
- Physical facilities and administration
- Nutritional requirements
- Veterinary care
- Well-being and handling
- General staffing
- Safety policies, protocols and training
- Governing authority
- Financial records and stability
- Education and Outreach
- Policies: Acquisition and disposition
- Policies: Public contact and restriction on use and handling
- Release into the wild (where applicable)
GFAS Accreditation Says That:
The GFAS accreditation process requires that the facility’s application be examined by an application committee comprised of at least one vet, a GFAS board member, and additional members knowledgeable specifically about the type of facility and the types of animals. The site has to have been visited at least once - most often by a volunteer collecting information for the application committee, but sometimes by a GFAS staff member or an outside consultant. Accreditation process includes interviews with the executive director, other staff such as animal care directors, and at least one volunteer. To be given GFAS accreditation, the facility must have met all care standards for the species of animals exhibited and uphold the ideology and mission of GFAS as an organization.
One of the most important tenets of GFAS certification is that everything possible must be done to minimize stress on the animals and allow them to live with minimal disturbance by humans. Tours are highly regulated and must be guided in ways that give the animals plenty of space to avoid guests, and the only time animals leave their enclosures (with a couple of specific exceptions) is for medical treatment or exhibit repair. This is obviously different in practice for rescues and rehabilitation centers, but the same mentalities are still evidence - rescue animals will have more handling and medical care, and rehabilitation centers will try to minimize interaction aside from medical care as much as possible to keep the animals wild. A facility accredited by GFAS will have taken all of this into account and have been found to have created appropriate operating procedures in response.
Politics and Interplay:
Like any set of bureaucratic systems, zoo/aquarium/sanctuary accreditations are steeped in politics - and that affects the accreditations a facility pursues. ZAA and AZA especially have an interesting relationship, as the former was effectively created due to a schism in the animal management community, for which the latter has long been considered the general authority. This gets into a little bit of organizational dirty laundry, but it’s important to keep in mind when considering why an otherwise good facility might choose not be accredited through the AZA.
For a very long time, AZA was the only accrediting organization in the US for zoos and aquariums, and they’re still the main one most people know about. This very public standing comes with benefits and also with a number of problems for facilities looking towards any type of accreditation. AZA standards are incredibly high and by being a very visible standard of quality to the public they hold the entire animal management field accountable for being the very best it can be. However, there’s often an impression given that AZA as an organization would rather every facility adhere to their standards and be a certified partner, even if their rules for facilities would directly conflict with the business models or primary missions of the facility. As an organization, AZA is not known for their enthusiastic support of other accrediting organizations such as ZAA or GFAS - they don't seem to speak out against them, but it's hard to find vocal support coming from official sources. That’s a big part of why ZAA schismed - AZA as an organization frequently comes across as elitist and condescending towards outsiders. Until the creation of the ZAA, it literally was ‘the AZA way or the highway’. Now, facilities get caught in choosing which accrediting organization is best in line with the needs and funding of their facility and are getting caught up in the politics that come with both. However, many past and present AZA members have personal professional memberships within the ZAA (5). Officially, relations between the two organizations are supportive and cordial, but in private the enmity between the two is often palpable.
However, being part of the AZA is prestigious - AZA facilities truly are the best institutions in the country and membership comes with the ability to exhibit really important species, be part of the greater research and conservation projects, provides access to a lot of professional development, and is great for PR and marketing. That’s not to say that being accredited through ZAA makes a facility bad. ZAA’s standards are less stringent than AZA’s by far, but that also means that their facilities have the freedom to pursue fulfilling their missions in ways that would be prevented by the specificity of AZA’s rules. There definitely are some ZAA institutions that utilize the open-ended regulations in order to promote sketchy practices through their other unrelated endeavors. but those are exceptions to the rule and not an overall trend. Just like AZA facilities, ZAA facilities are held to the stringent animal welfare standards required by federal law and implemented through USDA inspections.
Another reason a facility may choose to be accredited through ZAA instead of AZA is that the AZA accreditation process is incredibly expensive, often ambiguous, and not always entirely as objective as their documents indicate when put into actual practice. That doesn’t mean that the AZA accreditation proceedings or standards are any less valid or not of exceptionally high quality - it’s a small field and after a point it’s unavoidable that everyone knows everyone else - but it can be a point of frustration because interpersonal politics can seem to influence accreditation processes.
At the end of the day, politics aside, AZA facilities are still the cream of the crop and that accreditation status has a lot of validity. It’s just important to keep in mind that a ZAA accreditation and/or lack of AZA accreditation is not automatically a condemnation of an zoo/aquarium/sanctuary.
GFAS as an accrediting organization is sometimes maligned for having been created by members of animal rights organizations rather than animal welfare/animal management communities. This argument is often supported by the fact that both PETA and HSUS openly state on their websites that looking for a GFAS accreditation is a way to tell if a sanctuary truly helps animals. Considering the frequent attacks from the animal rights movement on the animal management community, it makes some sense that their support of GFAS might call the credibility of the accreditation into some question.
However, upon examination of both the GFAS standards and their accredited facilities, it does seem that they’ve managed to break from the radical viewpoints of their founders and have established a high quality and reasonable set of requirements and standards for the facilities they oversee. Considering that both PETA and HSUS - when being reasonable - often call for incredibly stringent standards and changes in even AZA accredited zoos and aquariums, their public support of GFAS-accredited facilities speaks to the quality of their standards.
What about zoos without any accreditations?
Judging facilities that don't have memberships in any of the above accrediting organizations is a whole other can of worms. Most facilities that are totally without accreditation are smaller, privately owned facilities and they can run the gamut from well-intentioned and small, to shady and incredibly problematic. Making a judgement call on supporting those sorts of facilities requires much more in depth knowledge of their daily operation as well as the best practices for the industry as a whole.
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.
Future installments in the 'How To Understand Zoos' series will cover many aspects of the best practices for captive animal management, in order to help zoo and aquarium visitors accurately interpret their experiences.
(1) This paragraph originally only mentioned that 'some' facilities shared dual accreditation between ZAA and and AZA and was updated to reflect the exact facilities with such status.
(2) Supplemental information regarding the politics of elephant management and organizational politics was provided by the ZAA communications department as potential supplemental information for this section.
(3)This list was not included in the original article and was supplied by the communications department of the ZAA.
(4) This section originally stated only the initial fees for ZAA's accreditation procedure, and was missing the multi-step process leading to accreditation and the yearly membership dues. This information was mentioned as a potential supplemental addition by the communications department of the ZAA.
(5) The ZAA communications department supplied as additional information for this section the fact that many past and present members of AZA hold current professional memberships with their organization.
(6) This section originally misrepresented the ZAA's policy on hybridization of collection animals due to a misunderstanding about a professional member's actions. It was updated regarding the ZAA Position Statement on Breeding Hybrids (2014) after conversations with the communications department of the ZAA.
(7) This section was originally absent and was updated after being provided with supplemental information from the ZAA Statement on Breeding Hybrids and Color Morphs (2014) by the communications department of the ZAA.
(8) This section was originally absent, and was requested to be updated in regards to an incorrect statement later in the article regarding ZAA's animal ambassador policy.
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Rachel is an educator and animal science writer. With prior professional experience in zookeeping, visitor education, shelter behavior management, and more, she works to translate pertinent field-specific knowledge into comprehensive explanations about current animal related topics.