What’s the Difference Between the AZA & ZAA?

More than can be included in this article, but here are two of the differences that are most important to saving big cats.

Origins of AZA vs ZAA

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was founded in 1924.  The Zoological Association of America (ZAA) claims to have been founded in 2005, but appears to have just been an idea that never really took off until the Lowry Park Zoo, under leadership of Lex Salisbury, lost its AZA accreditation in 2008.  Online sources show that Salisbury had hosted the ZAA at the Lowry Park Zoo in 2007 and began using the zoo’s facilities to run the ZAA in 2008, presumably to maintain the appearance of being accredited by someone.

The Lowry Park Zoo was able to regain their AZA accreditation after firing Lex Salisbury in 2008 for his allegedly self serving trades of more than 200 of the zoo’s animals to his own privately held animal collection.  As of 2013 Salisbury still serves on the ZAA board of directors.

The AZA has always been the gold standard for zoos, but has been challenged by the lack of public understanding of the meaning of accreditation.  Much time and money has been spent on branding so that zoo-goers know if they are supporting a good zoo or a bad zoo.  There has never been a serious threat to that branding until the ZAA began heralding themselves as an accrediting body. It isn’t that there is any real threat of competition between the two organizations; only a matter of confusion to the public.  It is our belief that some of the current AZA zoos, who don’t like the more strict and humane standards being adopted by AZA, are choosing to be accredited by both ZAA and AZA so that when they lose their prestigious AZA accreditation they will be able to dupe patrons into thinking that ZAA is the same thing.

So how does the AZA differ from ZAA?

From our perspective, at Big Cat Rescue, the biggest difference is in their attitudes toward breeding and handling of captive big cats and their cubs.

The AZA only recommends breeding of exotic cats based upon their genetics which are managed by the Species Survival Plans.  These SSPs are managed by experts for each species of animal.  Matings are suggested based upon providing the most genetic diversity and healthy specimens.  (ie: that is why the AZA does not condone breeding white tigers, white lions or other inbred animals) Each animal must have a pedigree that traces all the way back to their wild ancestors because many instincts are geographic and thus, if these animals are truly ever to enhance wild populations it is imperative that they are suitable for the areas to which they could one day be returned.

The ZAA promotes breeding of exotic animals by private owners of animals that cannot be traced back to the wild and thus could never serve any conservation value.  Most of their board members appear to be private, backyard breeders.   The ZAA states as its purpose, “Protect and defend the right to own exotic and domestic animals, both privately and publicly…” and yes, they can’t even spell publicly.

The AZA does not promote big cats as pets and does not allow the public to handle their big cats; nor do they pimp out the cubs for photo and handling sessions.  A few AZA facilities still allow public contact with cheetah, but after several recent maulings by cheetah, we believe that practice will soon go the way of the Dodo.

Cheetahs Maul Dmellow

All you have to do is take a look at the list of ZAA accredited facilities to see that prior to Tiger King, Murder, Mayhem and Madness, it was rife with facilities that pimp out lion and tiger cubs every few months for public contact.  This is unsustainable and results in hundreds of big cats outgrowing their profitable cub stage only to end up being relegated to tiny jail cells, or worse.  Since 64 million people watched Tiger King and roared out against such abuse, the ZAA has changed their rules to prohibit public handling of big cats.

Do you know someone who works for an AZA zoo?  You can help them distinguish themselves from ZAA roadside zoos and backyard breeders by asking them to publicly support the ban on the private ownership and breeding of exotic cats.

Why ZAA facilities should not be exempt from the Big Cats and Public Safety Act.

Download the ZAA Factsheet

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  1. Thank you for explaining the difference! I am familiar with AZA but recently saw the ZAA "accreditation" on the website of a questionable organization. I appreciate this info!

  2. Explains why a docent at Lawrie Park bad mouthed Big Cat to me. I didn't buy their line, I've been at Big Cat enough and hung out on the FB page enough to know better. If it ever happens again, I'll report them to zoo management. Thank you for the good that you do.

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