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Columbus Zoo Loses Accreditation, Plans Appeal

Sign for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Zoombezi Bay at the entrance of the facility.
Darrin McDonald
Sign for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Zoombezi Bay at the entrance of the facility.

Updated October 7, 2021, at 7:58 am. 

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a decision that zoo leadership said it plans to appeal.

Dan Ashe, the president of the AZA said the two major issues were financial mismanagement and concern for animal welfare in one of the zoo's programs.

The quick transferring of animals with zoos not accredited by the AZA was an especially important factor in their decision, Ashe said.

"So, the issues surrounding the kind of rapid-fire movement of animals into and out of Columbus, in exchange with non-AZA members, clearly for the purpose of supporting the use of those animals principally in entertainment venues is highly troubling and concerning because it cuts at what we see as really part of the bedrock of our reputation," Ashe said. "Those were the major issues involved."

Ashe said the AZA was aware of issues at the Columbus Zoo before “The Conservation Game” documentary came out, that the documentary was not a driving force in their decision, but it did make an impact.

There was not a concern about the broader welfare of animals at the zoo, such as elephants or birds, that would incline other AZA member zoos to remove their animals from Columbus, he said. The main issue of animals being transferred to non-AZA members, he said, was contained to one program.

Ashe said that since former Columbus Zoo director Jerry Borin stepped in as interim director in April, he and his team have effectively isolated the issue.

"I think they have taken some tangible and significant steps forward, and I do think that if they can consolidate those changes, then they'll be in position to reapply for accreditation, and we would welcome Columbus back," he said.

Dr. Jan Ramer, senior vice president of animal care and conservation at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium said that she and zoo officials were shocked at the decision and noted that the AZA vote was not unanimous.

She said she is furious that the actions of a few individuals in leadership positions who are no longer at the zoo resulted in the denial of the zoo's accreditation.

"And I want to wholeheartedly say that it is heartbreaking that the dedicated team that work here today had nothing to do with these decisions or actions [and now] are suffering the consequences of those terrible decisions and actions of a few leaders that are no longer here," Ramer said.

She also echoed what Ashe said about Borin—that since he stepped in as interim director in the spring, the zoo has been making significant changes at the board level, as well as in financial policies and animal transaction procedures.

On Tuesday, the zoo announced that Tom Schmid will take over as president and CEO of the zoo in December. Schmid served in leadership roles at the AZA.

Brittany Peet, deputy general counsel for captive animal law enforcement at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation, said in an emailed statement that the AZA has "once again distinguished itself from disreputable 'accrediting' operations such as American Humane and the Zoological Association of America by refusing to endorse facilities that ship big-cat cubs off to Tiger King–style roadside zoos."

"PETA celebrates this decision for alerting AZA-accredited zoos to keep vulnerable baby animals out of exploitative hands and reminding the public to stay away from businesses that trade tiger cubs like chess pieces," Peet said.

The zoo has until October 30 to file an appeal. The AZA said that the Columbus Zoo will need to show that the AZA acted in error but that it would be unusual for them to reverse their decision.

Ramer said that in the event their appeal is denied, the Columbus Zoo will become non-AZA partners and will continue to stay open until they reapply for accreditation next September.

"If we are denied, and we lose our accreditation, we will continue to stay open," she said. "The guests won't see any difference at all. We'll continue to have good animal care, guest experience, all of that. And then we will begin that work of becoming accredited again."