Antelopes gather in the shade Thursday in Chehaw’s African Veldt section of its wild animal habitat. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)
ALBANY — Mid-morning Thursday was pleasantly mild, even cool at times in the shaded areas of Chehaw. On the African Veldt exhibit at Chehaw’s wild animal habitat, animals were congregating under small stands of trees and the late summer sun climbed, bringing with it higher temperatures.
As they went about their day, antelopes, zebras, wildebeests and antelopes gazed at the park truck that was passing slowly through their 45-acre habitat that once was home to a heavy stand of pine trees. A curious ostrich named Wilma saunters over to the truck to get a closer look, while the other animals keep their distance.
There’s no roadway in the Veldt exhibit, and the fences that keep its denizens within the area are easily overlooked. A year old now and constructed at a cost of about $300,000, it places the animals in a habitat that is familiar to them, while also giving visitors to the park an opportunity to see nature up close in a realistic environment.
It’s one of the reasons that Chehaw was accredited for the fourth time earlier this month by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an 89-year-old national organization that promotes conservation, education, science and recreation. Getting AZA accreditation isn’t easy, and it says something about the organization that receives it — the zoo or aquarium is a top-notch, well-run organization that takes care of its animals and provides a quality experience for its visitors.
“By meeting Association of Zoos and Aquariums Accreditation Standards, Chehaw sets itself apart as one of the top zoos in the world,” AZA president/CEO Jim Maddy said. “Chehaw is a leader in the care and conservation of wildlife, and in educating people about the natural world.”
Any organization — whether a zoo, circus or another type — that displays wildlife to the public has to register with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the AZA does not have a figure for how many zoos operate in the United States, more than 2,800 businesses and organizations are registered with the USDA. The AZA has accredited 212 institutions in the United States and 10 outside the states, with 41 of those standalone aquariums, Steve Feldman, senior vice president for external affairs with the AZA, said Thursday in a phone interview.
“Just a little over 200 zoos meet this higher standard,” Feldman said. “Accreditation puts the institution on par with the very best in the country.”
That places Chehaw — which has 251 specimens and 88 species — in elite company, places such as the San Diego Zoo, the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Bronx Zoo. All have to meet the same stringent qualifications to be accredited. In Georgia, there are only three. In addition to Chehaw Wild Animal Park, Zoo Atlanta and the Georgia Aquarium are AZA accredited.
“It means that if you’re visiting a place that is AZA accredited, you can be sure that the physical, medical and psychological needs of the animals are being met,” Feldman said. “We (AZA member institutions) all share animals. You wouldn’t send your animals to another place unless you were sure it met the same high standards that you do.”
It also means that the member institution is doing its part in promoting and engaging in good conservation practices, which has worldwide impact, he said.
According to the AZA, the process of accreditation is rigorous. An institution undergoes the procedure every five years.
“Whether it’s the first, third or fifth time (that a zoo is accredited), it’s really meaningful,” Feldman said. As advances are made in animal care and science, they are added to the process.
“Our standards are always rising,” he said. “We don’t even like to use the word ‘re-accreditation.’ It just doesn’t do justice to the accomplishment. Each time, it’s a new accreditation.”
Once an institution is notified that it’s time for the assessment, a detailed application is made and a team of trained zoo and aquarium professionals are sent to the site for an on-site inspection that is described as meticulous. The team observes everything — animal care; keeper training; safety of staff, visitor and animals; educational programs; conservation practices; veterinary programs; financial stability; risk management; visitor services, and other areas. Once the team has filed its report, top officials with the zoo or aquarium submit to a formal interview by an independent Accreditation Committee of the AZA. Then, the application is granted, tabled or denied. An institution has to wait a year to reapply following a denial.
Doug Porter, executive director of Chehaw, said Thursday that the process started last fall when he was notified by AZA that it was time for the five-year review. Chehaw submitted its paperwork and the AZA-appointed inspection team — which included directors and officials from the Bronx Zoo, Northwest Trek and Santa Barbara Zoo — arrived in June for a “boots on the ground” review of Chehaw’s operations.
Porter noted that the team comprised individuals who have intimate knowledge about best practices for zoological operations.
“They know what to look for,” he said. “They don’t cut you any slack. … The standards are the same for us as for the biggest, most wealthy zoo.”
The group had full access to every animal, facility and individual at the park.
“Accreditation looks at a huge variety of aspects of our operation, from the most mundane, the administration, the business practices, the finances of the organization,” he said. “They look real closely at how well we’re funded to make sure we can provide the level of care. And then, they get into the animal stuff very deeply. That’s where Kevin’s (Kevin Hils is zoo director at Chehaw) guys worked really hard to update our policies and procedures. A lot of paperwork involved.
“When they come here, they’re poking into everything. They interviewed board members, they interviewed my secretary, they interviewed ticket takers. They went into every animal area. They opened every door, every cabinet. They’re looking for things like expired drugs, pest control. There’s no part of our operation they didn’t look at.”
“I will honestly tell you it’s probably the most intimidating thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Hils added. “You’re in a room with 20-something people — and these are vets, these are directors.”
The benefits of AZA approval may not be apparent to visitors, but it affects their experience and their concerns for animal welfare. The experience that visitors get is a consideration, but visitors also are assured that the animals they’re seeing are well cared for and thriving.
“The biggest thing,” Hils said, “is the level of welfare and care is at the top of what we should be doing in this business. It means that they’re receiving the best medical care, they’re receiving the best psychological care — which is huge. All the work that we do with enrichment and training. You’re making sure that your guests have a good experience, and they can trust the fact that we are doing more than just baseline to make sure the animals that they see are being cared for.”
“That’s what the public can take away from it,” Porter added. “The flip side of that is that if you go to a place that has animals and they’re not accredited, you don’t know what kind of care those animals are getting.”
It hasn’t always been that way. In the past, there was less consideration given to the welfare of animals on display, particularly the mental health of the creatures. While Chehaw has open areas for its animals to roam, longtime residents who visited Albany’s former zoo at Tift Park on North Monroe Street remember it as a complex of concrete and cages.
“You can go back a few years to they way they kept animals at Tift Park,” Porter said. “I’m sure that’s in people’s memories here. Is it OK to keep an elephant in a place that’s not much bigger than my office, where there’s concrete and railroad rails to keep it contained? Most people would say no, we don’t do it that way anymore. So, as standards have changed … we want to pride ourselves on meeting the highest standards in the profession and we want people to know that we have achieved those standards.”
Some that work isn’t obvious. On the tour of the Veldt, Hils noted that the operation is set up to ensure animal welfare, even in the event of a disaster on the scale of the Flood of 1994. Chehaw had spots that were above the 500-year floodplain and the wild animal habitat is designed so that the large animals can move to the higher ground should another flood of that magnitude strike.
That’s the type of planning that’s critical for the animals well-being.
“For us, everyone wants to be the best,” Porter said. “I don’t want to say we’re not able to be accredited, and our whole staff feels that way. You challenge yourself to meet the standards and you subject yourself to the risk of somebody saying you didn’t quite make it.
“You want to work for the best organization.”