I recently learned that my local zoo (Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium) forfeited its AZA accreditation over a disagreement about elephant handling...I'm conflicted now, because I take accreditation very seriously, and while I don't think they would drastically change their other care practices from when they were AZA accredited, it still makes me uneasy. Thoughts?
Don’t condemn the facility entirely based on that decision, because it’s a super complex topic and just because the directors made the choice doesn’t mean all the staff agreed with the choice. While losing accreditation forced the facility to drop out of major conservation programs and lose other funding (as well as potentially have to transfer AZA-managed animals back to AZA facilities), it wouldn’t change the quality of their husbandry or the ethos of the facility.
The disagreement was about whether Pittsburgh would switch from having the choice to work with their elephants without fences or barricades between them and the humans, or if they’d adhere to a new AZA policy that would have required to work with elephants through a barrier at all times.
The tl;dr of what happened is that elephants have been worked with free-contact for most of the existence of zoos, and a couple decades ago (after a few really nasty elephant keeper deaths) AZA decided to push for a new and radical type of management that only allowed for protected-contact elephant handling and positive reinforcement training methods. Over time, the new methods proved safer and better for animal welfare (and getting AR people to stop yelling) and AZA forced all of their zoos to shift over to stay accredited. (There are a couple major exemptions to this, such as the old ladies at Audubon in NOLA - elephants for whom free contact work was such a fundamental part of their life that it was decided that they’d be grandfathered out of that policy because changing it would be detrimental to their welfare). The policy that required places to go free-contact was outlined in 2012, and facilities had until 2017 to make the change. Most places did it - some folk at Pittsburgh didn’t agree.
One of the biggest things about AZA most folk don’t know is that the facilities are required to have the final say over the animals in their care - they can lose accreditation if a city or state organization forces them to change their animal care (or move their animals) because they’re no longer in the position of being fully and ultimately responsible for their charges. From what I can tell, the Pittsburgh facility felt that they truly knew what was best for their elephants - and it wasn’t changing to protected-contact management styles. It’s a pretty sensitive topic for the facility as a Pittsburgh elephant keeper who died back in 2002 was part of the reason AZA started looking into alternate management forms.
From what I remember seeing when it went down, not everyone at the facility supported the choice - it wasn’t a democratic decision. I don’t know if the elephant keepers supported it or not. Either way, the director/CEO decided it was what was going to occur, and staff were simply told it would happen. This is a huge deal - 68 other AZA facilities made the change to protected contact. AZA is fairly elitist about their organization and very strict about regulating member facilities - so the only option was for Pittsburgh to lose their accreditation.
Losing AZA accreditation came at a high cost - they lost a $5000 grant from the AZA for a new playground and suddenly no longer qualified for participation in a sea turtle rescue program that had operated out of the zoo since 2009, since US Fish and Wildlife will only send turtles to AZA accredited facilities. They also lost the ability to participate in more than 100 species sustainability programs unless they reapplied to the highly political organization looking to be a non-member partner (I’m not sure if this has since occurred - my google fu isn’t helping).
There are some pretty major philosophical differences regarding protected- vs free-contact handling for elephants, so it’s not necessarily a case where you can condemn a facility for refusing to switch. After all, some AZA facilities are still allowed to use it in special cases (but will be required to switch when those elephants pass way). Protected contact is much safer for human caretakers, but also limits what interactions staff are able to have with elephants - and this is a big part of the debate, as the relationship between highly emotionally intelligent animals and their keepers is definitely a defining aspect of their enrichment and welfare. AZA made their choice to keep staff safe and standardize caretaking to increase positive training, but that does not necessarily mean that their ruling is a one-size-fits-all solution. There’s no good answer as to who, if anyone, is in the wrong with what happened.