Accreditation: The Gold Standard

Sabrina Cynova
June 2, 2022
Sabrina Cynova
June 2, 2022
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation is coveted by institutions all across the globe, including Lincoln Park Zoo. What does the accreditation process entail, and why is it important?

Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation is coveted by institutions all across the globe, including Lincoln Park Zoo. What does the accreditation process entail, and why is it important?

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and a team of zoo staff from various departments meets inside Regenstein African Journey. As team members meander through the building, they keep their eyes wide open, searching for peeling paint, trip hazards, worn-out signage, animal habitats that need improvements, and other items that an Association of Zoos and Aquariums inspector might notice. Notes are taken, and the team parts ways until they meet again the following week at another building.

Lincoln Park Zoo is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). AZA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation and is the gold standard in zoo and aquarium accreditation.

Receiving accreditation is a monumental affair and a goal for zoos and aquariums as a signal that they are leaders within their fields. What exactly does this process entail, and why is being a member of AZA important to institutions all across the globe?

All About Accreditation

When an institution receives accreditation, it means that they are meeting and/or exceeding the standards of animal welfare, care, and management set forth by AZA.

“The zoo being an AZA-accredited institution means that we are continuously striving to grow and challenge ourselves to make Lincoln Park Zoo the best it can be,” says Manager of Zoo Programs Marisa Shender. What does AZA evaluate? Essentially, everything!

When it comes to animal welfare, the Accreditation Commission considers the animals’ living environment, social groupings, health, and nutrition. Animals should also be provided with enrichment in order to stimulate their natural behavior and provide variety in their daily routine. Other aspects that are evaluated include the institution’s involvement in conservation and research, its veterinary and education programs, safety policies and procedures, security, physical facilities, guest services, finances, and the quality of the staff and their overall satisfaction with their role and opportunities for further professional development.

AZA’s standards and guidelines for accreditation are continuously being updated, as zoos and aquariums are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of their communities and the animals in their care. Zoos and aquariums must keep up with the changes to remain accredited and have to go through the entire accreditation process every five years.

Making the Grade

How exactly does an institution become accredited? The Accreditation Commission meets twice yearly to review applications. Zoos and aquariums in colder climates, like Lincoln Park Zoo, must submit an application by March 1 to have a hearing at the September AZA Annual Meeting. Once the application has been submitted to the Commission, an AZA inspection team is formed and plans are made for their on-site inspection in the spring when the weather is warmer and they can experience a more typical day

at the zoo. Following the on-site inspection, the team meets with the institution’s CEO to discuss their findings. Any issues that have been identified need to be fixed or in the process of being resolved by the institution’s hearing in September with the Accreditation Commission. At this hearing, the institution will hear if they have been accredited for another five years.

While some institutions receive accreditation or keep their status, in rare cases, others lose it.

“The most time-consuming part of the accreditation process is the application,” says Shender. “It can take anywhere from six months to a year to gather, update, and organize all the necessary documents. It’s a very technical and thorough process that requires staff from departments across the zoo to be involved. We’re all working together to ensure Lincoln Park Zoo remains a top-tier institution dedicated to animal welfare, care, and management.”

Every year, the Accreditation Commission releases updates and new standards. Zoos and aquariums review these updates annually and make any necessary changes to their operations to remain in good standing, although inspections happen every five years.

Lincoln Park Zoo was first accredited in 1976 when it was a voluntary process and then was re-accredited in 1985 when it became mandatory to be accredited as part of the zoo’s membership in AZA. Lincoln Park Zoo has remained accredited consistently since 1976.

“Lincoln Park Zoo is unique compared to other institutions because we have weekly mock inspections with a team of zoo staff from various departments,” says Shender. “Once a week, our team inspects a different building at the zoo, searching for items that need to be fixed or improved. We strive to always be in compliance with the standards and guidelines and inspection—ready every day of the year!”

Why Accreditation Matters

AZA accreditation serves as a guide for the public as to which zoos and aquariums are providing the best for the animals in their care. Lincoln Park Zoo’s accreditation sets the zoo apart from other non-accredited institutions and marks it as an example of excellence.

“When you visit Lincoln Park Zoo, you’re visiting an institution dedicated to advancing the highest quality of animal care, education, science, and conservation,” says CEO & President Megan Ross, Ph.D. “We’re continually determining what can be improved and how we can evolve to provide the best possible care for the animals at the zoo. We’re proud to have attained this gold standard and dedicate our knowledge, skills, and time to remain at this level.”

Before your next adventure to a zoo or aquarium, be sure to research the institution to see if it’s AZA-accredited. Doing this ahead of time allows you to ensure that the institution you are visiting and supporting is dedicated to providing the best animal care at all times. One of the benefits of being a Lincoln Park Zoo member is that most AZA institutions offer reciprocal benefits! Learn more and discover which institutions participate in this program at

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