The Honolulu Zoo could lose as many as 90 exotic animals on loan through animal exchange programs after the Association of Zoos and Aquariums this week denied the Waikiki facility’s request for reaccreditation.
About 10 percent of the zoo’s roughly 900 animals are on loan, said Guy Kaulukukui, director of the city Department of Enterprise Services.
Exactly which animals the zoo could lose is unclear, but loss of AZA accreditation might also severely hurt the Honolulu Zoo’s reputation, making it more difficult to be eligible for foundation grants.
The Caldwell administration announced Tuesday that the zoo will not be reaccredited. On Monday AZA officials met in Omaha, Neb., with Zoo Director Baird Fleming, Assistant Zoo Director Linda Santos and city Managing Director Roy Amemiya.
The AZA cited the lack of a consistent and adequate funding source as a key reason for the denial.
There is a one-year waiting period before the zoo can reapply for accreditation, and it would take an estimated eight months from then to obtain it, Amemiya said at a news conference at the zoo Tuesday afternoon. The actual date the zoo will lose its accreditation is unclear. City officials said it could take effect after formal notification of the decision is received in the coming days.
For more than a decade, Amemiya said, there’s been a pattern in which the AZA warns the zoo about inadequate funding, prompting a surge of resources on the city’s part. But funding again dwindles, followed by another AZA warning, he said
The 42-acre zoo had an operating budget of $5.6 million and 76 employees in the fiscal year that ended June 30. For fiscal 2017, which begins July 1, Mayor Kirk Caldwell is proposing a $6.8 million operating budget and 86 employee positions.
In addition to questions over adequate funding, the Honolulu Zoo has had five zoo directors in six years, grappled with repair and maintenance issues, and faced increasingly stricter accreditation requirements.
“AZA accreditation today is not the same as it was, say, 15 years ago,” Amemiya said. “Zoos have moved on. They’ve become hubs for education and conservation, and we’re lagging a little bit and we’re trying to catch up.”
When Honolulu applied for reaccreditation in March 2011, the zoo was placed on “deferral” status by the AZA, which cited long delays in completing an elephant enclosure. After the new 1.5-acre elephant exhibit was completed that December, AZA announced in April 2012 that full accreditation would be restored until 2016.
Neither Amemiya nor Kaulukukui would say whether regaining accreditation is a priority.
“I think we’re looking at all of our options,” Kaulukukui said. “We would prefer to be an accredited zoo, absolutely, but we’re just starting the process of trying to address the issues.”
The city has been scrambling in recent years to meet the AZA’s demands after warnings that the deficiencies threatened accreditation.
For the upcoming 2017 budget year, the administration has proposed six new animal keeper positions. The city’s capital improvements budget, meanwhile, includes six zoo improvement projects, all tied to AZA requirements, that will cost more than $10 million.
Amemiya said it will take more than pumping additional money into personnel or facilities. “We need to look at the business plan for the zoo,” he said.
The Honolulu Zoo Society, the zoo’s nonprofit support group, has been criticized by at least one former zoo director for not doing enough to raise private funds to help support the zoo.
On Tuesday both Amemiya and Zoo Society Executive Director Jennifer Barrett separately promised to work more closely.
The zoo has for more than a century been a valuable resource to the community, Barrett said. “We want to ensure that it will be around for at least a hundred more, and we will continue to support the city’s efforts for reaccreditation.”
City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents the Waikiki-Diamond Head area, stood with city officials at the news conference and also pledged the Council’s support.
Ozawa pointed out that the administration is seeking funding for added positions and improvements at the zoo, and said Tuesday’s news “helps us be able to justify where these tax dollars are going.”
Ozawa and Councilwoman Kymberly Pine introduced the bill allowing the city to accept limited sponsorships.
Pine, who introduced the sponsorship bill, said in a statement that “it is my hope that the administration implements this soon so that we can show the AZA that we are committed to the Honolulu Zoo and its future.”
But not all support the sponsorship path. Alethea Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, which advises the Council members on operations of the park, said sponsorship could easily stray into the realm of advertising. Her group’s suggestion to close off the parking lot to make it accessible to only zoo, park and beach visitors, and then return all parking revenues to the zoo, has been ignored, Rebman said.
Fleming, the zoo director, became the fifth one in six years in February 2015. Manuel Mollinedo, one of the former directors, warned publicly following his resignation that a lack of commitment from the city threatened AZA accreditation.
Mollinedo, speaking to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by phone from California, said he was saddened but not surprised by the AZA’s rejection. “Hopefully, the city will take this seriously and provide the kind of support that the zoo needs,” he said.
The zoo consistently ranks among the top four or five visitor attractions on the island, “but it takes money to maintain the zoo and keep it at the level the AZA wants,” he said.
Mollinedo was tasked with pushing through the zoo’s 2011 accreditation. While the city poured money into the zoo to achieve accreditation, “the city started to pull its resources back” once accreditation was attained, he said.
In addition to the possibility that dozens of animals will be lost without accreditation, the zoo’s ability to breed and bring in exotic animals could also be lost because many AZA facilities will work only with accredited facilities.
“It’s only the animals that are on loan from other institutions, in particular perhaps other AZA institutions, that might be at risk, but it is a ‘might,’” said Kaulukukui, the Department of Enterprise Services director. “It’s not a lock, it’s not a guarantee. And there’s certainly no … animal welfare reason any zoo should ask for us to return a loaned animal.”
The AZA website lists “participation in Animal Exchange (access to specimens from other AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums for loan or breeding)” as one benefit of accreditation.