Tiger King and Zoo Auditing

Libby Meadows

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021

Like many people during this quarantine, the majority of my days are spent switching through different streaming sites trying to find anything entertaining to watch. Towards the end of March Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness was released on Netflix. It instantly took over all my group texts and Twitter feed. All conversations were about how in the world a little roadside amusement was able to house that many big cats and if it could really call itself a zoo. This documentary also sparked the ever-continuing discussion of whether roadside zoos are ethical. This heated debate incited my curiosity as to what organization monitors and regulates private zoos. After some research, and speaking with my aunt, a zookeeper in Seattle, I discovered the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (“AZA”), an organization that audits and accredits zoos and aquariums around North America.

What is the AZA?

The AZA is a non-profit organization whose focus is the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation. It is comprised of Scientific Advisory Groups (“SAGs”) that conduct scientific research to enhance animal care and management strategies. The SAGs’ goal is to partner with the academic and scientific communities to increase the use of science in the management and care of animal populations in zoos and aquariums. Some of the SAGs include the Nutrition Scientific Advisory Group, the Reproduction and Endocrinology Scientific Advisory Group, and the Small Population Management Advisory Group. The AZA also has committees that are focused on combining members from different parts of the zoo and aquarium world to assist in accomplishing the missions that the AZA sets out to do. The Committees range from focusing on Animal health and advancement to Government Affairs and Safety. All the subgroups of the AZA come together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of animals living in zoos and aquariums and to create innovative ideas for wildlife conservation.

The accreditation process

The AZA is also an independent accrediting organization that represents 230 facilities in the United States and abroad. The AZA creates their Accreditation Commission by selecting twelve experts who are leaders in their fields and have many years of experience and education in zoo and aquarium operations, animal management, and veterinary medicine. The twelve members of the Commission evaluate every zoo and aquarium to make sure it meets the AZA standards for animal living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition. They go beyond the basics of animal management and make sure that the animals are provided with enrichment to stimulate the individual animal’s natural behavior and provide variety with their daily routine. Examples of enrichment activities are scattering food around the exhibit inside of objects to promote hunting and foraging behaviors and providing tools for animals to make their own choices, like Gorillas making their own nests with the hay or leaves provided.  The Commission also evaluates the zoo or aquarium’s safety policies and procedures, security, physical facilities, guest services, and the quality of the institution’s staff making it an all-encompassing review of the entire facility and its staff.

The accreditation process begins with candidates for accreditation filling out a comprehensive questionnaire which includes copies of their policies, procedures, records, lists, and reports. The Accreditation Commission reviews the application and then send a team of inspectors to visit the zoo or aquarium. The teams spends several days at the facility visiting every area, interviewing staff, checking records, and examining the facilities and the animal collection. The inspectors create a detailed report and evaluate the facility and submit it to the Accreditation Commission. The Accreditation Commission next meets to examine the application and supporting documents. The senior staff from the zoo or aquarium applying must attend the Commission’s meeting to answer any questions and then a decision is provided from the Commission. Standards for zoos and aquariums are constantly evolving and being raised. Zoos and aquariums must stay up to date on these changes and go through the entire accreditation process every five years.

Legislation initiatives  

In addition to accrediting zoos and aquariums, the AZA, by way of its Government Affairs Committee, also educates and lobbies for the passing of legislation to assist in wildlife protection and conservation. In Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, H.R. 1380, or the “Big Cat Public Safety Act”, is discussed. The Act seeks to strengthen existing laws to prohibit the possession of tigers, lions, and other big cat species, except by qualified entities. The act would also create restrictions on public contact with the large cats and would stop the use of commercial photo-opportunities, petting, walk-with, swim-with and other interactive operations. The AZA supports this Act and many others seeking to protect wildlife. On the AZA’s website they list the different bills they support and by clicking on the orange “Take Action” button individuals can easily send a letter or an email to their representative encouraging them to sponsor the bill.

While Joe Exotic’s, G.W. Zoo is not AZA accredited, one can easily look up the accredited zoos and aquariums on the AZA website. The AZA ensures that science is always the basis for the care of animals living in zoos and aquariums and ensures that experts in the field are working on their teams. The AZA is not giving up the fight on ending private ownership of exotic animals and other wildlife conservation efforts. Although the ethical debate about zoos is not going away anytime soon, people should take solace in knowing that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums take extensive measures to ensure that zoos are operating at the most efficient and effective capacity.