The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is a nonprofit organization located in the US, and founded in 1924, which offers accreditation to zoos or aquariums that follow AZA standards, submit applications for accreditation and submit to inspections by a team of inspectors. Zoos and aquariums that wish the stamp of approval of the AZA must achieve certain standards in the following areas: animal care, education of the public, participation in wildlife conservation programs, and following the most recent scientific developments or spearheading them in order to improve animal care, education, and conservation.
The AZA has about 200 members. Just about a tenth of the US zoos and aquariums meet Association standards. Furthermore, remaining accredited is an ongoing process. Places that care for animals have to meet changes in standards and are usually given accreditation through a specific time period. Zoos and aquariums must resubmit to inspections, show improvements and keep up on the latest science in order to retain their standing.
There can be rapid loss of accredited status if a zoo is found to have failed to comply with AZA standards. An event in 2007 also called into question how closely the AZA was looking at the application of various animal care practices in zoos. In the end of 2007, three boys were attacked, and one killed by an escaped tiger at the San Francisco Zoo. As investigation later proved that the containment facility for the tiger did not meet the current safety standards of the AZA, though they accredited the San Francisco Zoo. The height of the wall over which the tiger may have escaped was much lower than safety standards require. Further investigation showed that the nearby Oakland Zoo also had a much lower wall for their big cats than that required by the Association, even though it is also accredited.
Failure to provide safe housing so that both animals and people are protected seems a very large hole in the AZA’s administration of its own standards. This devastating attack, even if it was in part due to provocation of the tiger by zoo guests, suggests that zoos and aquariums need to be more active in meeting safety standards, and that the Association needs to work in a more complete investigatory manner so as not to accredit an institution that violates such standards. This incident should not completely blight much of the good work the Association accomplishes, and people are likely safer, and animals better cared for at an accredited zoo.
On the AZA website, you can search zoos and aquariums by state if you choose to support this nonprofit organization. In the main, and despite the incident in San Francisco, and perhaps because of it, accreditation by the Association may truly mean you are visiting a zoo or aquarium committed to the health and well being of its animals, its guests, and to conservation efforts in the wild. This incident, if anything is likely to prompt more investigation and response by accredited zoos, and by the Association.