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Columbus Zoo to appeal after being denied accreditation by Association of Zoos and Aquariums

The AZA cited a recent investigation into misuse of funds as one reason for the decision.

POWELL, Ohio — The Columbus Zoo will appeal the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ decision to deny its accreditation, it announced Wednesday. 

The AZA's Accreditation Commission voted to deny the zoo accreditation on Oct. 1, saying that Columbus has "failed to uphold" its standards. The decision comes after a partnership of more than 40 years. 

The AZA cited an ongoing investigation into misuse of funds at the zoo, as well as recently surfaced reports of intentional animal transfers for entertainment purposes. 

10TV has been following these developments for months. Here's a breakdown of the events leading up to Wednesday's announcement: 

Why did the Association of Zoos and Aquariums make this decision? 

Back in March, the Columbus Dispatch first reported that four zoo officials, including former President and CEO Tom Stalf and CFO Greg Bell, misused zoo resources. Shortly after that announcement, both Stalf and Bell voluntarily resigned. 

An internal investigation later found that, between the four officials, the zoo lost more than $630,000. An investigation by the State of Ohio remains underway. 

“Issues of financial mismanagement have been reviewed by an independent forensic analysis and reported on in the media," it reads in a release from the AZA. 

The release goes on to say: "Those issues alone are serious. 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."

A recently released documentary makes allegations against the zoo's former longtime director, Jack Hanna. 

The "Conservation Game" claims Hanna and the zoo had ties to the big cat trade across the country. In July,  the zoo cut ties with certain animal organizations that were mentioned in the film.

“Given the number and gravity of concerns that the inspection team identified, the Commission concluded that although Columbus is working hard to correct the issues, the zoo should not be accredited at this time," the AZA said. 

How did the Columbus Zoo respond? 

The zoo announced Wednesday it plans to file an appeal in response to the AZA's decision, saying it believes it meets current standards required for accreditation. 

In a release, the zoo acknowledged the investigation and allegations of animal trading, but said it has since made the proper changes necessary. 

“At the time of the AZA inspection by the visiting committee in July, we believe the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium met the AZA standards required for accreditation," Jerry Borin, interim CEO and president of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said in a release in part.  

"The poor decisions of a handful of people should not negate the good work this team does and how much staff members contribute to the AZA through committee work and leadership roles," Borin added. 

Since the first allegations were brought to light in March, the zoo has made several changes to how it operates. Those changes include: 

  • Announcing new leadership, including the temporary return of former president and CEO Jerry Borin, as well as Jan Ramer as vice president of the zoo and The Wilds and senior vice president of animal care and conservation. Additionally, the zoo announced Tom Schmid will serve as its new president and CEO. Schmid comes from the Texas State Aquarium and is set to begin his new role with the zoo on Dec. 6. 
  • Immediate reporting of Animal Programs is now overseen by the vice president of animal care instead of the chief financial officer. 
  • The Ambassador Animal Programs were evaluated and changed, with oversight now coming from the vice president of animal care. 
  • The zoo ended relationships with all vendors named in The Conservation Game documentary. 
  • All non-AZA institutional profiles have been updated 
  • The zoo has clarified its commitment to the life-long welfare of current and retired Ambassador Animals. 

According to the zoo, the accreditation visiting team commended it on "exemplary work" during its most recent visit. The zoo added the AZA could have tabled its accreditation for one year, rather than deny it fully. 

The appeal must be filed by Oct. 30, it reads in the release. If unsuccessful, the soonest the Columbus Zoo could apply for accreditation is September 2022. The zoo hopes to be reaccredited by 2023.

You can learn more about the process here.  

What does this mean for zoo guests? 

According to the zoo, the recent decision will not affect operations, though officials say lack of accreditation will restrict zoo staff from continuing certain roles and the zoo from participating in some breeding programs. 

“When people come to the zoo, they’re going to see the same animals that they’ve always seen, they’re going to see the good work that we do," said Jan Ramer, senior vice president of animal care and conservation. 

"Our team is still going to be out there caring for those animals, giving them the best care that they can every day, giving them the best experience, doing that good conservation work that we’ve always done," Ramer went on to say.   

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