Editorial: Good to see zoo climbing back
A stamp of approval from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the independent accrediting organization for facilities across the country and internationally, signals that an institution meets high standards.
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A stamp of approval from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the independent accrediting organization for facilities across the country and internationally, signals that an institution meets high standards. The AZA represents more than 230 institutions, which collectively draw more than 195 million visitors every year.
Three years ago Honolulu Zoo fell from that prestige group when the nonprofit stripped the zoo’s accreditation. Previously, for more than a decade, there had been a pattern in which Honolulu Hale was warned about inadequate funding, prompting a surge of resources on the city’s part, followed by a drop in resources.
In addition to concerns about an uneven flow of funding, leadership was wobbly. When accreditation was pulled, the zoo had seen five directors depart within a span of six years, while grappling with repair and maintenance eyesores.
Since then, the city has pushed steadily to get operational ducks in a row. Now, due to recent years of stability, regaining accreditation appears to be within reach.
Honolulu Zoo officials this month submitted an application, which could bring a decision by April, following site inspections that will scrutinize everything from animal welfare and well-being, to safety for visitors and staff, as well as educational and conservation programs, and financial strength.
Figuring most prominently in helping to spur improvement at the zoo was a City Charter amendment approved by Oahu voters in 2016. It requires at least 0.5% of annual real property taxes go into a special zoo fund to help win back accreditation.
So, at least $6 million in the institution’s budget, which totals about $15 million, is now reserved for the ongoing effort. If the zoo fails to secure re-accreditation, the new tax funding stream will run dry in July 2023. Let’s hope it won’t come to that — but if it does, tough questions about continuing a zoo here must be asked.
Also apparently key to the turnaround was the sensible hiring of a homegrown leader to serve as the zoo’s 11th director. The selection of Linda Santos, in September 2016, who had been working at the zoo for three decades — holding in almost every job there — was cheered by zoo employees who vouched for her ability to move the institution forward.
Spared the learning curve often needed for directors without deep Hawaii roots, Santos and her staff have tackled deferred maintenance and necessary upgrades as steps toward reapplying for accreditation this year.
Honolulu Zoo, which formally opened in 1947, is the only zoo within a radius exceeding 2,000 miles. In addition to ranking as a Waikiki area visitor go-to, it’s a must-see for many of Hawaii’s schoolchildren who otherwise might not have opportunity for an up-close look at various endangered animals — including species the zoo has successfully bred in captivity, such as the Batagur turtle, Galapagos tortoise and Komodo dragon.
All three are showcased in the Ecotherm Complex, which opened two years ago as replacement to the former Reptile House, which was originally dedicated in the mid-1960s. The latest upgrade — four years in the making — was unveiled last week: a refurbished and more naturalistic Malay sun bear exhibit.
Regardless of exhibit quality, some critics maintain that zoos have outlived their purpose. In response, Santos and others have rightly pointed out that high-quality zoos are increasingly serving as at-the-ready educational resources and conduct meaningful conservation work that might not otherwise get done. Those are solid reasons for the Oahu community to support Honolulu Zoo’s push to re-enter AZA’s fold of “exceptional zoos and aquariums that have met or surpassed rigorous, ever-evolving standards.”