A couple of weeks ago, our Leadership team traveled to Seattle, Washington to participate in the annual Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) National Conference. There, they attended a hearing with the AZA Accreditation Commission, in which the group addressed critical questions about the present and future of the Greensboro Science Center. This was the final step in a series of many steps to earning AZA accreditation again. With that said, we’ve got great news to share… but first, you’ll need some background information.
What is AZA?
AZA has been around since the early 1970s. In response to growing concerns over the animal care being provided in zoo and aquarium settings, AZA established a set of scientifically-proven best practices as applicable to aquariums and zoos. The standards, available for review by the public at any time, apply to all aspects of an organization’s operations, including animal welfare, governing body, conservation, education, guest services, facilities, safety, staffing, veterinary care, and finance. AZA standards are considered the national benchmark in the eyes of many U.S. agencies, including the USDA, USFWS and OSHA.
How It Relates to Us
The GSC was first accredited back in 2008 with the opening of Animal Discovery Zoo. Before this year’s efforts, our last application and inspection took place in January 2013. With a new application due every five years, we’ve been in the process of applying for accreditation again. The application steps are outlined next.
The Accreditation Process, Simplified
First, a written application must be submitted. In order to complete this application, staff will spend roughly a year evaluating and updating the necessary information, including protocols, reports and supporting documentation such as records of safety drills or program animal handling procedures.
After the written application is submitted, an on-site inspection will be conducted by a team of AZA inspectors. Teams are made up of voluntary professionals – including a veterinarian, an operations representative and an animal program representative – from within the AZA community. For facilities with elephants and/or marine mammals, an additional inspector with expertise in those specific areas is assigned. To assure the most thorough inspection possible, AZA does its best to match inspectors to facilities that are similar to their home facilities. Once the inspectors arrive at their inspection site, they spend approximately three to four days taking photos and gathering information to determine whether or not the facility is practicing what it described in its application. Not only will they examine the grounds and amenities; inspectors also spend time interviewing various volunteers and staff members as well as the facility’s Board of Directors. Questions can range from “What is your organization’s mission?” to “What is your department’s safety procedure during a tornado?” No stone is left unturned.
The next step is for the inspectors to report back to AZA. Any comments inspectors make regarding items of concern must be tied to a documented standard. Inspectors cannot focus on past or perceived future issues and must focus only on what is happening presently. Although there is a separate section of the inspection report in which inspectors can share their opinions, opinions cannot be used as cause for a write-up. Additionally, although the inspecting team can make a recommendation regarding accreditation, they cannot make that decision.
Following the inspection team’s reporting step, the applicant will receive a resulting document detailing all concerns, if any, and will be provided with three to four months to address those concerns. After this time, the facility will send a representative or group of representatives to a hearing (the one mentioned at the beginning of this writing) with the accreditation commission, and this is where they will find out whether or not their facility has met AZA’s standards for accreditation.
How It Relates to You
If all of that sounds intimidating, it’s because it is! But it’s worth every bit of the work that goes into it. AZA accreditation means recognition, but more importantly, it means that we can work better and smarter for both our animals and our visitors. Being a member of a group of hundreds of other facilities means that we have access to great networking and resources, which translates to constant learning and improvement for us. Accreditation is synonymous with community, and all that we do is interconnected and for a greater purpose. Each animal we house serves as an ambassador of its species, telling stories of conservation and science. We want to provide the best education possible for our community, and AZA accreditation makes it possible.
Finally, for the great news. Executive Director Glenn Dobrogosz emailed the team the morning after the hearing to announce that the Greensboro Science Center has once again received AZA accreditation!
Less than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the Department of Agriculture are accredited by the AZA. This means that if you’re visiting a zoo or aquarium and spot the AZA logo, you can rest assured that the place you’re visiting is living up to the highest standards in its industry. Don’t get us wrong – this is not to say that a given non-accredited facility does not abide by high standards! Since accreditation is optional, organizations may choose not to apply for AZA accreditation, even if they meet or exceed AZA’s benchmarks. What we mean is that we are certainly proud of our status as an AZA-accredited aquarium and zoo, and you should be, too! Thank you for helping us to rise to the occasion once again.