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CEO DATELINE – AZA strips accreditation from world-renowned zoo over controversies

Oct. 8, 2021
By Walt Williams

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has denied accreditation to one of the nation’s largest zoos because of questions regarding the zoo’s role in the exotic animal trade and alleged misuse of funds by former administrators.

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AZA announced Wednesday that its accreditation commission voted to deny accreditation to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, outside Columbus, Ohio, marking the first time the zoo has lost the status since first gaining it in 1980. At 580 acres, there are few U.S. zoos larger than the Columbus Zoo, which houses nearly 600 different animal species.

The association cited recent revelations that former Columbus Zoo emeritus director and wildlife documentary host Jack Hanna used animals procured from roadside attractions and exotic animal dealers in his television appearances.

 AZA also cited “inappropriate financial management” by the zoo’s former leadership. Four former officials, including the CEO and CFO, have been accused of using zoo funds on personal expenses, according to news station WBNS in Columbus.

In a statement, AZA CEO Dan Ashe said it is “never a good day when AZA loses a member” but defended the decision.

“Issues of financial mismanagement have been reviewed by an independent forensic analysis and reported on in the media. Those issues alone are serious,” Ashe said. “More substantial and concerning is a long record of intentional and repeated animal transfers with non-AZA members intended to supply baby animals—mainly big cats—for entertainment purposes.”

AZA accreditation is touted by the association as the gold standard for evaluating a zoo’s treatment of animals and its dedication to conservation. The group notes that fewer than 10% of animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are accredited.

The Columbus Zoo plans to appeal the decision, saying AZA could have instead tabled the facility’s accreditation for a year while it made changes.

“The AZA first accredited the Columbus Zoo in 1980, and as a long-standing AZA organization, we are disappointed that the Commission denied our accreditation after all of the positive changes that were made to meet AZA standards,” interim CEO Jerry Borin said in a statement. “These changes were in place prior to the accreditation inspection and have been sustained since.”

The zoo also announced on Tuesday that Tom Schmid had been named its new CEO. Schmid currently is CEO of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi.