'We're going to need help,' Gladys Porter Zoo faces tough accreditation review

6 months 2 days 18 hours ago Friday, June 02 2023 Jun 2, 2023 June 02, 2023 6:34 PM June 02, 2023 in News - Local

A new accreditation inspection is coming at the Gladys Porter Zoo. But some endangered animals on loan may have to go back if the inspection isn't passed.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is expected to inspect the zoo this December, and standards are higher than before. It will be challenging, especially at the zoo's older exhibits.

"It is an in-depth, very difficult process," said Dr. Pat Burchfield, director of the zoo.

The AZA does accreditation inspections every five years. Standards tend to rise, in line with new research and best practices, said Burchfield.

The zoo is constrained by its budget and landlocked property in downtown Brownsville. It opened in 1971. It will be a challenge to upgrade some legacy exhibits.

"We've got to, for example, re-home and build a new lion exhibit if we're going to continue to have lions in the future," said Burchfield. "Small world, our petting area, is a little antiquated. We need to redo that."

Those improvements would cost millions, he said.

Losing accreditation makes it more challenging to secure import and export permits from federal agencies, said Burchfield. It also puts endangered species loan agreements at risk.

Endangered species are managed by participating zoos under species recovery plans, he explained. Some endangered animals are on loan from other zoos. Zoos that do not pass AZA accreditation cannot keep loaned endangered animals, he said.

"Almost all the animals we work with are endangered," said Burchfield. "If you lose accreditation, they're required to remove their animals from your zoo."

That includes animals like Mbunde, a silverback gorilla. The band of gorillas near the front entrance of the zoo is a main attraction. Mbunde is on loan from another zoo.

The Gladys Porter Zoo is a non-profit organization. The grounds and utilities are owned by the City of Brownsville. But the zoo seeks out donations to continue operations.

Burchfield said the zoo is aware of the new AZA standards. Those needs are being worked into the zoo's newest master plan, released last year. But funding may still fall short.

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“We’re going to need help from our patrons, our donors, the city of Brownsville," he said.

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