Zoo seeks accreditation

By J. DANIEL CLOUD,

How many alligators does it take to acquire a giraffe or three? More on that later.

If you’ve driven down Hardy Street past the Hattiesburg Zoo in the past few months, you will probably have seen the large structure going up close to the road. When complete, it will be habitat for a new giraffe exhibit.

The zoo is currently seeking accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). That accreditation was sought before, a few years ago, when the zoo was still under the umbrella of Hattiesburg city government. Now, however, the zoo falls under the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, and they’re trying again.

“More than anything, becoming accredited by the AZA would be a stamp of approval,” said Amanda Hargrove, marketing director for the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. “We are already holding ourselves to the highest standards. This is a standard we already try to go by.

“But this would be a stamp of approval that says we’re on the same level as, say, the Cincinnati Zoo, or some of the other larger zoos in the country.”

Accreditation would be proof that other major zoos in other cities believe the Hattiesburg Zoo is a worthy contender, a partner of sorts, a friend worth having, a signal that our local zoo has arrived, said Rick Taylor, executive director of the Convention Commission.

“It will show to other zoos that we are at the same level as the San Diego Zoo, or the Tampa Zoo,” he said. “The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) decides whether you can hold any animals at all. AZA accreditation is kind of the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It’s the gold standard.”

The AZA isn’t the only accrediting body for zoos. Another is the ZAA, the Zoological Association of America, Taylor said. The ZAA was formed in 2007, while the AZA has been around since 1924.

The two split in confrontational, almost religious, form, regarding how elephants should be handled, Taylor said. “Should humans be in the same space with elephants, up close and in person, or should they not be.”

There was a case of an elephant handler at the Dallas Zoo, who “somehow got squished between an elephant and a wall,” Taylor continued. The event was used “as fuel to prove the AZA’s point that such contact is improper” and potentially dangerous.

One of the other major differences between the two groups is the way they address the ownership and breeding of exotic animals, especially big cats. This is particularly important to the Hattiesburg Zoo, where the tiger exhibit is concerned.

Part of the AZA accreditation importance includes that it will allow the Hattiesburg Zoo “access to more types of animals” through the trading process.

Until recently, the zoo had two Sumatran tigers, brothers Kuasa and Cinta. Cinta died in 2017. Kuasa, however, at the age of seven, is a “healthy young male who proved to be a genetically viable match, a viable mate, for three female Sumatran tigers at the Dallas Zoo,” Hargrove said.

So in late 2018, the Hattiesburg and Dallas zoos worked out a trade: Kuasa went to Dallas, and Hattiesburg acquired a 12-year-old Sumatran male tiger named Kipling. Kipling had been part of the breeding program in Dallas, but had grown too old, and had never produced any offspring.

(Kipling, is older, more docile, and I’ve seen him a few times. Rather than prowling about the enclosure’s perimeter, like his predecessor, Kipling finds a place to lay down in the sun, and stays there.)

While AZA-accredited zoos put the focus of breeding on sustaining endangered species, the ZAA promotes ownership of exotic animals by both private owners and by professional, public zoos.

There are only a few hundred Sumatran tigers remaining in the wild, so Kuasa’s move to Dallas may help save the species from extinction.

“The accreditation process involves having people from other accredited zoos visit,” Taylor said. “It’s a peer review process. When they come to visit, they look at the entire zoo as a whole.”

The recent hiring of a full-time veterinarian was one important step in the direction toward being accredited, Hargrove said. The lack of a dedicated zoo veterinarian was one of the primary reasons the zoo was denied accreditation in the past.

One more thing that will help the Hattiesburg in its quest for accreditation, Hargrove added, is the anticipated addition of another staff member, in addition to already having hired a full-time veterinarian.

Not all details have been released, but the zoo has hired an animal care expert whose most recent job was designing, building, and preparing an orca exhibit at an aquarium in China. He will be joining the zoo staff in November, she said.

The accreditation process can take up to two years, she said. “And that process is one that would be ongoing. We have had people visit already, from the Bronx Zoo, and we would continue to welcome other visitors from AZA-accredited zoos.”

“Once a zoo becomes accredited, the process has to be done every five years,” Taylor added. “It’s not a one-time thing.”

Some of the things the accreditation body looks at aren’t necessarily about the animals, or even about the institution itself, Hargrove said.

“It’s more than just the animals, the keepers, and the visitors,” she said, noting that showing animals to people educates the public “on how and why their survival is important. [The zoo] must also be about educating people on animal conservation, recycling, ways to save animals and save the planet.”

For anyone wondering: No, there is very little chance the Hattiesburg Zoo will ever get elephants, unless they find a place somewhere out by Lake Thoreau to which they can transplant the entire zoo.

(The Lake Thoreau idea was mine. Taylor laughed, saying, “Do you have any idea what it would take to move an entire zoo?”)

Each elephant requires one acre, minimum, for daytime, and another acre for nighttime. And because elephants are by nature social animals, the zoo would need to acquire a minimum of three. Between those requirements, with the addition of a quite substantial barn, it would require approximately or at least 8 acres to go into the elephant business.

We will, however, soon have giraffes. Their facility has been in progress for months, and the area is going to be large enough to hold up to four giraffes.

As already noted, one of the primary benefits of AZA accreditation is the ability to access more animals by trade.

Hargrove said she expects “no difficulty at all” in acquiring giraffes when the time comes.

Unlike tigers, giraffes breed well in captivity, and live significantly longer. They have also proven to be one of the most popular attractions at zoos around the world.

Which brings us back to the question of alligators.

“In southern Mississippi, we’ve got more than our fair share of alligators,” Hargrove said, noting that the Hattiesburg Zoo has traded (or given) alligators to many zoos around the country over the years, and that they are natural, living, currency of a sort.

“They’re literally hatched here. We’ve got more than we can keep. Many zoos, however, don’t have any.”