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Recent deaths at Pittsburgh Zoo raise questions about AZA accreditation

Recent deaths at Pittsburgh Zoo raise questions
Recent deaths at Pittsburgh Zoo raise questions 02:38

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Since the beginning of the year, there have been three animal deaths at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium. The latest: a sea lion that died at the age of 18. Some questions are being asked after the zoo left its accreditation program.

The zoo has been working to get back into the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, accreditation program since 2021. KDKA-TV asked the group's CEO point blank if these recent deaths will have any impact on that process.

The AZA accreditation is viewed as the gold standard for zoos across the world. It ensures the animals and visitors are safe and treated well.

"They're receiving better care than you and I could get," AZA CEO and president Dan Ashe said.

The zoo left the program back in 2015 over its elephant handling policy. Ashe said he's aware of the deaths of a zoo gorilla, elephant and sea lion. They said they weren't aware of the red panda and lion deaths from last summer because the zoo is not required to report any deaths since it's not accredited. Ashe said at this point there doesn't appear to be any connection between all the deaths from what he's aware of.

"I don't see any obvious or concerning connection between the three," Ashe said over the phone.

At this point, the deaths are not expected to impact the zoo's path to accreditation.

"They have an exemplary record over time of providing care and animals are like people, they get sick," Ashe said.

Humane Action Pittsburgh said the accreditation is a necessity for a zoo. Based on its lease with the city, the zoo has been in breach of it by not being accredited.

"There should be meaningful damages put into place in the lease to hold the zoo accountable," Humane Action Pittsburgh Executive Director Natalie Ahwesh said.

While the organization is the first to say they are not wild or exotic animal vets, they feel the recent deaths bring awareness to the need for proper accreditation. Currently the zoo is accredited by the Zoological Association of America, which Ahwesh said has lower standards.

"The ZAA really was established to be an agency that promotes private ownership of exotic animal ownership," she said over Zoom.

RAD, which helps fund the zoo, says they are saddened by the losses, but they still have confidence in the leadership of the zoo. 

PETA calls for an investigation in a statement. It urges people to visit only AZA-accredited facilities.

The zoo's lease with the city ended at the end of 2022, but the city council gave them a one-year extension, so the end of last year. KDKA-TV reached out the mayor's office, who is responsible for negotiating the lease. They are checking on the information.

The zoo did not respond to any request for comment.

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