POWELL, Ohio (WCMH) — The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will be filing an appeal after the Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) denied the zoo’s accreditation.

A release from the Columbus Zoo says a team from the accreditation commission visited in July and commended the Zoo on 17 points of exemplary work in all aspects of Zoo operation, and the commission’s vote was not unanimous. 

“The visiting team also specifically commended the changes made by new leadership and staff since the departure of the former CEO and CFO and in response to concerns about the acquisition and disposition of Ambassador Animals in the Animal Programs department. However, the accreditation commission said it wants to see that these changes can be sustained,” the release states. “They also expressed concern about the inappropriate financial management issues by former leadership. This spring, the Zoo’s board of directors initiated a forensic analysis, which identified the misuse of Zoo assets by the former leaders. These issues are still under investigation by the State of Ohio.”

“At the time of the AZA inspection by the visiting committee in July, we believe the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium met the AZA standards required for accreditation. The poor decisions of a handful of people should not negate the good work this team does and how much staff members contribute to the AZA through committee work and leadership roles. Nobody currently working at the Zoo had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in today. We’ve acknowledged the wrongdoings of the past. We’ve also made changes and updated policies to ensure those cannot happen again,” said Jerry Borin, interim CEO and President of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. 

The Columbus Zoo states the AZA commission could have tabled the zoo’s accreditation for one year, so changes and improvements could have been made.  

Among the recent changes made by the Columbus Zoo include:

  • Return of former CEO/President Jerry Borin as Interim CEO/President
  • The October 5 announcement that Tom Schmid will be Columbus Zoo’s new CEO beginning December 6
  • Naming of Jan Ramer, DVM, former Vice President at The Wilds, as Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Senior Vice President of Animal Care & Conservation 
  • Immediate change of reporting structure of Animal Programs department to the VP of Animal Care instead of the Chief Financial Officer
  • Ambassador Animal Program moved under the VP of Animal Care, which reports to SVP of Animal Care & Conservation 
  • Evaluation of and changes to Ambassador Animal Programs 
  • Ending relationships with all vendors highlighted in The Conservation Game film 
  • Updating all non-AZA institutional profiles and enhancing oversight of approvals    
  • Commitment to life-long welfare of current and retired Ambassador Animals, as is the case with other animals in the Zoo’s care

It is never a good day when AZA loses a member, especially one as renowned and respected as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. But AZA membership is conditioned on adherence to our accreditation standards – the global “gold standard” for modern aquariums and zoos – and our independent Accreditation Commission has determined that Columbus has failed to uphold those standards.

Issues of financial mismanagement have been reviewed by an independent forensic analysis and reported on in the mediaThose issues alone are serious. More substantial and concerning is a long record of intentional and repeated animal transfers with non-AZA members intended to supply baby animals – mainly big cats – for entertainment purposes.

Given the number and gravity of concerns that the inspection team identified, the Commission concluded that although Columbus is working hard to correct the issues, the zoo should not be accredited at this time.

I am confident the leadership and Board of Directors at Columbus are taking these matters seriously, and in fact, they have already instituted significant changes. Yesterday’s news about the selection of Tom Schmid as their new President and CEO is welcome and encouraging. However, the Commission felt that additional time will be required to let these and other changes take hold.

To the employees of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, we acknowledge your good work. Much of the accreditation inspection report was exceedingly positive and reflective of your professionalism. We hope to see Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and you back within our community soon.

“Although we are sad at losing a member, we believe this exemplifies what distinguishes AZA accreditation, helping earn its reputation as the global ‘gold standard’ for modern zoos and aquariums. In the past five years, ten facilities have failed AZA’s accreditation process. Large and small, zoo and aquarium, internationally famous and locally loved, all AZA members are accountable to our standards. If they do not uphold them, they will not be accredited.”

Dan Ashe, AZA President and CEO

The Columbus Zoo’s appeal must be filed by Oct. 30, and if it’s unsuccessful, the earliest the zoo can apply for accreditation is September 2022.

The zoo says operations and visitor experience will not be affected by the ruling.

Schmid told NBC4 Wednesday that he disagrees with the AZA’s decision.

“Quite honestly, I was very surprised and taken aback by the decision that the (accreditation) commission made,” Schmid said, sitting in his Corpus Christi, TX office. “I’ve conducted probably 20 AZA inspections and in five different countries. So I’m, you know, fairly well versed in the process. And from what I’ve seen at the Columbus zoo, they are meeting the standard in virtually every category.”

Schmid said current Columbus zoo leadership has kept him involved in the loop, as he remains involved in the appeal process.

“I’m supporting the staff in any way that I can, providing guidance and direction,” Schmid said. “And really just being a resource for (acting CEO) Jerry (Borin) and the team right now.”

“We’re going to basically share with the commission, again, the positive changes that we’ve done, and really make sure they understand that these are changes that will continue,” Schmid said. “We didn’t just do these changes for the inspection. This is the new way that Columbus zoo is operating. And for whatever reason, I think that message just did not get through to the accreditation commission. And so that’s going to be a key part of the appeal.”