What’s important to note here is that this is not a white tiger in the wild. The article emphasizes that “pale tigers, distinct from white tigers, are thought to have a genetic mutation that results in what biologists call colour morphism.’” That’s kind of an academic way of saying that ‘this is another color tigers can be’ but what it emphasizes is that this color is caused by some type of random mutation in the genes that control the coat, leading to a lighter (but still orange-based) pelt - rather than the animal having two copies of the specific mutation that creates the actually white tigers we’re familiar with.
Hi! I was wondering how you feel about non-AZA accredited zoos. The Pittsburgh Zoo lost their accreditation a few years ago (because of an issue with one of their programs I think) but I still think it's an excellent zoo. Do zoos have to be AZA accredited to be good zoos?
Congratulations, you have pinpointed one of the largest cans of worms in the animal care industry! The response I’m about to give you is absolutely, definitely controversial - because honestly, there’s no one answer that everyone will agree with.
I do not believe that lack of AZA accreditation should automatically condemn a zoo. (They will probably be very unhappy with me for stating this, since they’ve been advocating since at least the 1970′s for the government to recognize them as the only accrediting authority and shut down every facility they don’t accredit). As far as animal care, education, and conservation work goes AZA accreditation is the best reliable indicator of quality for public - but there’s a lot of reasons a zoo might choose not to be accredited in the first place, or might lose accreditation, or might choose not to be re-accredited. So no, not all “good zoos” must be AZA - but the public needs to be much more critical consumers in order to determine which non-AZA facilities are good zoos.
One of the biggest reasons a zoo may not be AZA accredited is functional. AZA accreditation is designed to support and accredit primarily large urban zoos with a lot of funding. It really isn’t a good fit for smaller suburban or rural zoos: those that do decide to go for AZA accreditation spend years and a huge amount of money trying to meet AZA’s standards, and even after all that work not every non-urban zoo decides to stay accredited because the priorities of AZA doesn’t necessarily line up with what the organization needs to do to survive or what the community that supports it wants to see at their local zoo. This could be, for instance, that the type of education and conservation messaging AZA wants to see from its facilities isn’t appropriate for a rural setting or that the internal structure of the organization that AZA requires just isn’t functional at a smaller zoo. Mill Mountain Zoo, in Roanoke, Virginia, recently mutually split from AZA because it just wasn’t a good fit - but their animal care programs are still the same, and AZA thinks highly enough of them that they’re still allowed to participate in highly prestigious SSPs such as snow leopards, pallas cats, and red wolves.
Another reason a zoo may not be accredited is because of differences in agreements over animal care requirements. Lack of accreditation due to these types of issues can’t really be qualified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reasons because each case is so individual. Sometimes facilities choose not apply for AZA accreditation in the first place because of a known conflict with their requirements. To pick a controversial example - and this is only a hypothetical - a facility like Myrtle Beach Safari would probably choose not to apply for AZA accreditation because their facility breeds color morph tigers, which AZA standards prohibit. The facility’s entire philosophy around tiger breeding and exhibition would have to shift drastically in order for them to make the changes AZA would require. Other times, facilities choose to leave AZA and/or purposefully lose their accreditation because of a disagreement over new rules. That’s what happened with Pittsburgh. Management at Pittsburgh didn’t agree with the requirement that all AZA zoos transfer over to working their elephants in protected contact, and eventually chose to lose the zoo’s AZA accreditation - and all the grants and federal exemptions that go along with it - in order to continue working with their elephants in the manner they believed was best for their specific animals.
It’s also worth noting that some facilities may choose not to be part of AZA because of political reasons. AZA is notoriously condemnatory to any facility they don’t accredit. I’ve heard a lot of AZA staffers and surrogates, including directors or upper management at AZA facilities, say really nasty things about rural or smaller zoos with incredible frequency. They call them
“roadside zoos” and though there’s no actual definition of the term, the official AZA usage appears to denote “anyone AZA doesn’t accredit.” (I wrote more about that here, if you’re interested in that specific political rabbit hole.) AZA as an organization itself appears to have partnered with HSUS in the fight to shut down all “roadside zoos” - including an officially sanctioned panel addressing it at the 2016 national conference - and the CEO of HSUS has been indicating in his messaging that AZA is now helping them police the rest of the zoo industry. This treatment doesn’t necessarily get better when a zoo starts working towards accreditation - I know someone whose facility was referred to as a “roadside zoo” literally as they were being congratulated for having been accredited. The official AZA messaging is that it has a cordial and professional relationship with other accrediting bodies like the ZAA - but they consistently publish documents that denigrate ZAA’s credibility as a professional organization and urge lawyers and lawmakers to not only ignore their input but even help regulate them out of existence. With that sort of blatant political enmity, it’s understandable that zoos external to AZA might be utterly uninterested in working to join the group that constantly publicly attacks their existence and professionalism and instead go it alone or join a different accrediting group.
I would also hazard a guess that
more organizations may choose not to associate with AZA given their apparent inclination to partner closely with animal rights organizations like HSUS. Smaller zoos get harassed endlessly by the animal rights organizations, regardless of their actual quality, and would absolutely have no interest in working to gain membership in a trade group that appears to be in bed with their long-time antagonists.
Tl;dr: Accreditation and who has what why is really complicated. It’s not as simple as the “good vs bad” messaging AZA has been promoting. It’s very tied into industry politics, animal care philosophies, and the practical realities of running zoos. As discussed above, there are all sorts of reasons a zoo might choose to not get or to forfeit AZA accreditation. Some are reasonable, some are not, and it ends up being something consumers have to study in depth for each non-AZA facility they’re interested in to figure out if they want to support it.