POWELL, Ohio (WCMH) – The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium board met Wednesday for the first time since its national accreditation was pulled back in October.
The loss of the accreditation came after a scandal involving top former employees misusing zoo funds and resources.
The accreditation was addressed at the meeting, with the zoo still waiting on a response on its request for an appeal.
Zoo board president Keith Schumate said he is cautiously optimistic as the zoo awaits an answer from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) about Columbus’ accreditation.
“We’re very hopeful we’ll be successful because this is a great zoo and it’s one of the best zoos in the country and I think the AZA would like to have the Columbus Zoo as one of its key members,” Schumate said.
The AZA accreditation signifies top-notch care of animals as well as public trust.
The zoo filed a letter to appeal the accreditation loss and the deadline to hear back is coming soon.
“Day 45 is Dec. 20, so right before Christmas, and they don’t have to wait that full 45 days,” said Jan Ramer, senior vice president of Animal Care and Conservation at the zoo. “They can come back to us at any time.”
The accreditation was pulled after a report that top former zoo employees misused upwards of $600,000 in zoo funds and resources.
When asked where legal proceedings stand against former president Tom Stalf and CFO Greg Bell, Schumate said, “They have sent demand letters out to everyone asking for the reimbursement to be made and we’re awaiting responses from the former employees.”
Board members said they’ve made headway on completing several recommendations following an independent investigation into the fraud, including creating an anonymous fraud hotline, consolidating credit cards, and hiring new audit firms.
Schumate said there have also been discussions with employees at the zoo.
“What happened, why, and what are you going to do to make sure it didn’t happen again, and I think those are all fair questions,” he said. “We tried to answer them as best we could.”
The zoo reports that donations and sponsorships have increased, revenue is up, and even attendance is on track to reach a record 2 million people for the year.
“There’s a lot of just affection for the zoo and they really care about the zoo and I think the public in general trusts the zoo,” Schumate said. “Obviously, there’s some concerns that they have, and we have as well, that we’re trying to rectify.”
The zoo’s new CEO, Tom Schmid, will start work at the zoo on Dec. 6. He joined the meeting briefly and said he’s working on a 90-day plan.