POWELL, Ohio (WCMH) — The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, known by the many television appearances by former director Jack Hanna, is losing its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The nationally recognized “best practices” honor has been held by the zoo for more than 40 years.
The zoo confirmed in a statement Wednesday morning that it will appeal the decision.
The loss of accreditation follows a year of scandals that plagued the zoo and its leadership. Former CEO Tom Stalf and the former chief financial officer, Greg Bell, each resigned amid allegations that they misused zoo property for personal profit, allowing family members to live in zoo-owned houses, and awarded no-bid construction contracts.
In August, a documentary alleged longtime zoo director Jack Hanna had improper ties to the big cat trade across the country, using his celebrity to misrepresent the source for the animals used in his many television appearances.
Sources said the scandals played a direct role in the loss of the AZA accreditation, and there is concern about what all of it will mean for the zoo’s national reputation. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has consistently ranked as one of the best zoos in the country.
One source said losing the accreditation is a black eye for the zoo and can determine what animals are available to be transferred there. Sources also told WCMH there is concern over what the loss will mean for funding and donor confidence.
The zoo’s appeal must be filed by Oct. 30, and if it’s unsuccessful, the earliest the zoo can apply for accreditation is September 2022.
A release from the Columbus Zoo says a team from the accreditation commission visited in July and commended the zoo on 17 points of exemplary work in all aspects of zoo operation, and the commission’s vote was not unanimous. The zoo states that the AZA commission could have tabled the zoo’s accreditation for one year so changes and improvements could have been made.
“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. 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. Nobody currently working at the zoo had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in today. We’ve acknowledged the wrongdoings of the past. We’ve also made changes and updated policies to ensure those cannot happen again,” said Jerry Borin, interim CEO and president of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
The zoo says operations and visitor experience will not be affected by the ruling.
News of the AZA decision comes on the same day Tom Schmid, the current director of the Texas State Aquarium, was announced as the new CEO for the Columbus Zoo.