When Jim Maddy was being recruited to become president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, he visited a number of American zoos.
"And my wife turned to me and said, 'These are the nicest, most caring people I've ever been around," Maddy remembered. "My wife's an artist so her sensitivity meter is pretty highly tuned. I turned to my wife and said, 'You're right.'"
Maddy, chief of North America's accrediting agency for the continent's top zoos and acquariums, said, "The best part of my job is the people," but he is also responsible for setting what he called "rigorous standards."
Among the best zoos in North America, Maddy said, is Zoo Boise, which he recently presented with its third national accreditation in 15 years.
How does Zoo Boise excel?
[Zoo Boise Director] Steve Burns banded with some of his counterparts several years ago to pioneer a notion of collecting quarters for conservation. That idea spread like wildfire, and today we're collecting millions of dollars. Zoo Boise is a national and international leader in wildlife conservation, and it is punching way beyond its weight class. I think Zoo Boise is setting an example for much larger institutions all across the U.S. and Canada.
How exhaustive is the accreditation process?
[Maddy pointed to a 400-page binder that represented Zoo Boise's reaccreditation application.]
There's a peer inspection team that comes in every five years at a minimum. Now, I should tell you that we also come in between that five-year period if complaints or issues are brought to our attention. The crew that came to Boise for the five-year peer review included a deputy executive from the Santa Barbara Zoo, a veterinarian from the Sacramento Zoo and the chief curator from the Tucson Zoo. The review generally takes about two-and-a-half days. The core of the review centers around animal welfare--the care and nutrition of animals and the holding areas--as well as the financial performance and stability of the institution.
Are your standards evolving or are they static?
If you keep a zoo or aquarium just like it is--don't change a thing--you will not pass accreditation next time. These are science-driven standards, a continuous process. But I usually use the analogy of a shoe store. If the store doesn't work out, you just get rid of the shoes and padlock the door. A zoo doesn't have the option of simply going out of business.
But have you ever been involved in the shuttering of a zoo?
We lost a zoo to natural disaster in Minot, N.D. A flood destroyed everything, and they evacuated the zoo.
When disaster strikes, and I'm thinking about tropical storm Sandy, how soon do you have to move in?
Aquariums are more fragile when they lose power and water pressure. The New York Aquarium on Coney Island was completely flooded. It was a tidal surge and the ocean came right through. Some animals were rescued, but they definitely lost animals, too. They're probably going to have disperse the collection.
How many zoos and aquariums are currently accredited?
Two hundred twenty-three in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
And how does that compare to the total number of zoos and aquariums?
There are about 2,500 organizations that hold licenses to hold or exhibit wildlife. Now some of those, like Zoo Boise, are large organizations, but that number also includes a lot of animal refuges or roadside attractions. Only about 9 percent are accredited by AZA.
Do you consider zoos and aquariums to be economic engines?
Zoos are more popular than ever, with more than 185 million guests annually. Accredited zoos and aquariums have a $16 billion dollar direct and indirect contribution to the nation's gross domestic product. Directly and indirectly, that represents about 145,000 jobs. In most metropolitan areas, the public zoo is the most visted attraction and the price is right. It's high value and much more affordable than attending a lot of sports events or a weekend trip to the beach or mountains. Interestingly enough, our zoo and aquarium attendances actually went up during the recession.
But how difficult was the recession's impact on operating a zoo or aquarium?
The recession definitely had a lag effect. A little more than half of AZA accredited insitutions are in city parks or on city land. The recession obviously impacted property values and tax bases, and I've noticed an increased backlog of deferred maintenance. We have to watch that very carefully in our accreditation process. We had to pull accreditations a couple of times this year. About 100 times, we've either denied, pulled or tabled accreditations. When we table them, we give the organization the opportunity to make the necessary corrections. If they come back and it still isn't there, they don't get a second extension and get their accreditation pulled. They have to wait another year before they can reapply, and it starts all over.
How many times has that happened?
About five times.
Does AZA get involved in investigating zoos or organizations accused of animal abuse or neglect?
The public is very interested in animal welfare. But we're a professional organization. We get a regular stream of unsolicited reports from the public on things they've seen. We always encourage them to reach out to animal control or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Can you speak to the increasing number of exotic animals that are owned by individuals in this country?
Venomous snakes, large carnivores. There are more tigers in North American back yards than there are in the wild of Asia. Exotic animals don't make good pets for all sorts of reasons. That cute bundle of joy turns into something that is 300 or 400 pounds and its nutritional and veterinary and social needs can't be met. Part of a meaningful wildlife education experience at our accredited zoos and aquariums is helping people understand that exotic animals don't make good pets for all sorts of reasons.
When you're visiting a zoo, do you have personal affinity for any particular animals?
I love miniature mules, the cutest farm animal you ever saw. I also love birds of prey. When I'm left alone at a zoo, I drift toward hawks and eagles.