Animal welfare regulation at zoos

Q: I visited two zoos over the past month and was bothered by the difference in cage sizes for the monkey exhibits. Are there any rules or certifications that help guide how zoo animals are housed? If so, what are the criteria? – John, MN

A: Actually, zoos are regulated by the USDA, according to the Animal Welfare Act, but some believe the government’s not going far enough when it comes to guaranteeing animal welfare. And no wonder—zoos have always been a touchy subject. On the one hand, you can argue that  zoos expose people to exotic animals they’d never otherwise see, thereby inspiring the public tohelp protect endangered species. On the other hand, many argue that  zoos are inhumane, unnatural environments. Luckily, ethically torn visitors can assuage their worries by visiting zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Founded in 1924, the AZA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of accredited zoos and aquariums in the areas of animal care, wildlife conservation, education and science. Institutions that receive AZA accreditation undergo a rigorous evaluation process that involves a 60-page guidebook, a 6-month evaluation process and a 12-person team of experts who make sure that high standards for animal management and care are met. “Conservation is a hallmark of our members,” says AZA spokesperson Steve Feldman. “It’s not enough to take great care of animals. The zoo or aquarium must also take significant steps in conservation efforts.”

AZA continually monitors accredited organizations, and every zoo and aquarium must go through the entire accreditation process every five years. Currently, fewer than 10 percent of the approximately 2,400 animal exhibitors licensed by the USDA are AZA accredited, so you can’t just jump in the car and assume your local zoo shares your high standards for animal welfare. Before you plan your trip, browse this list to find AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums near you.

-         Jessica A. Knoblauch

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