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What is an AZA Institution?

In our most recent Conservation Blog, we spoke a bit about our partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and its rigorous accreditation standards for animal welfare and care. But what does that actually look like in practice? Today we’re discussing what distinguishes an AZA accredited zoo from a roadside animal attraction and ways you can support the AZA or AZA organizations.

Let’s face it: we’ve (mostly) all seen or heard of Tiger King. Nowhere in recent media has there been such a wide-reaching and potent showcase of why the AZA is vital. The 2020 Netflix phenomenon justifiably raised significant concern for the welfare of animals like big cats. We cannot more emphatically state the difference between attractions of the Joe Exotic brand and AZA accredited organizations, both in standard of care and in conservation mission.

AZA Accreditation and Welfare Standards

The full AZA accreditation standards comprise a robust 119-page document outlining guidelines for animal care, welfare, and management. This includes “living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition… We also make sure that animals are provided with enrichment, which stimulates each animal’s natural behavior and provides variety in their daily routine” (AZA). In addition, the accreditation committee examines an organization’s “veterinary program, involvement in conservation and research, education programs, safety policies and procedures, security, physical facilities, guest services, and the quality of the institution’s staff” (AZA). The process of accreditation is extremely time consuming: it takes many months to complete an application and six months to study and evaluate, followed by a multi-day on grounds inspection that encompasses every area and department of the institution.

In short, receiving AZA accreditation is no easy task. And it’s not a one-and-done deal. You can’t renew AZA accreditation as you can your car registration or passport: each organization is required to reapply every five years and restart the process from the ground up. Additionally, every single animal at an AZA institution undergoes a thorough welfare assessment every year.

Conservation Mission

Another differentiating factor between AZA zoos and aquariums and roadside attractions is that AZA organizations are primarily conservation organizations. In fact, the zoos and aquariums of AZA collectively represent one of the largest conservation organizations in the world. To achieve AZA accreditation, institutions must have a robust conservation focus. This includes active projects supporting animals in the wild, green practices in their operations, and education programs supporting the conservation mission (Frontiers in Environmental Science). As a result of these requirements, AZA institutions have collaborated on reintroduction programs that have helped save at least nine species, such as the golden lion tamarin, from the brink of extinction.

What is a roadside attraction?

It may seem obvious how AZA institutions differ from roadside attractions, but we’ll lay it out a bit further. Roadside animal attractions are generally smaller menageries, often posing as sanctuaries or rescues. In reality, these facilities often use harmful activities (such as elephant riding, holding wildlife, or unmonitored feeding) to earn a profit. There is little to no transparency on where the animals come from and rarely are there qualified veterinarians or researchers on staff. Animal AND human health, safety, and well-being suffer as a result. Additionally, these attractions are usually for-profit companies with no conservation focus, and they are not upheld to the same standards set forward by AZA.

How to support the AZA

The easiest way to support the AZA is to visit or donate to your local AZA accredited zoo or aquarium and avoid visiting unaccredited animal attractions. You can find a list of currently accredited organizations here. You can also donate directly to the AZA.

To wrap up with some good news, the Big Cat Safety Act was signed into law last December. This law prohibits the private possession of big cats and makes it illegal to allow direct contact with cubs. AZA zoos, universities, and accredited wildlife sanctuaries will still be allowed to have populations of these animals, with strict regulations in place- meaning it will be much much harder (read: illegal) to become the next Joe Exotic.  


About AZA Accreditation. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Marcy, K. (2021, May 26). Interesting Zoo and Aquarium Statistics. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from,from%20the%20brink%20of%20extinction.

Ripple, K. J., Sandhaus, E. A., Brown, M. E., & Grow, S. (2021). Increasing aza-accredited zoo and Aquarium engagement in conservation. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 9.

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