ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Two years after calling out “major concerns” at the Albuquerque BioPark, a global group who is known for setting animal care rules and standards at zoos has now let the city off the hook.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) recently approved of the city of Albuquerque and the Albuquerque BioPark’s plan to add more animal care and maintenance staff, clearing the facility from a monitoring period that emerged in late 2015.
The approval, more importantly, means that the zoo can continue housing rare and endangered animals like the snow leopard, great apes, big cats, and even the soon-to-arrive penguins that the city is building a multi-million enclosure for.
While it may not be the most widely recognized part of the zoo to many, AZA accreditation is arguably one of the most critical things the BioPark has going, based on what BioPark advocates say.
“It’s impactful,” said Julie Miller Rugg, executive director for the Albuquerque BioPark Society. “It really does help us to carry on and be the fantastic facility that we’ve been in the past and we need to continue to be in the future, for sure.”
“It’s a good thing,” said Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.
AZA accreditation is essentially a seal of approval for zoo and aquarium facilities. The AZA describes the process as, “a thorough review that includes a detailed accreditation application as well as a multiple day on-site inspection by a team of experts from around the country.”
While Albuquerque’s zoo and aquarium were technically accredited during the last inspection in 2015, the city’s facilities have been on a sort of “probation” for the last two years.
The AZA’s last report on the BioPark listed several “major concerns” with the facilities, primarily at the zoo. According to the report, those concerns included, “low staffing levels throughout the BioPark;” “significant reductions in permanent positions;” extensive use of minimally experience temporary employees” and “multiple issues regarding delayed maintenance and repair.”
As KRQE News 13 first reported on Special Assignment, city and BioPark staff presented an action plan to fix the listed problems during the AZA’s annual meeting 2016. That plan included adding more permanent and full-time staff, mainly in the area of animal care.
However, the AZA’s final approval of that plan was “tabled” during the 2016 meeting for a full year.
Last month, city staff presented an update on their progress to AZA board members. According to city staff, the hearing was “a success” and “the AZA has no further items for the BioPark to address.”
Mayor Richard Berry told KRQE News 13 that many of the issues the AZA cited the BioPark for, were products of a lack of financial resources the city had in its budget.
“All of these things were related to budgetary issues, making sure that we are living within our resources,” said Mayor Berry.
Mayor Berry told KRQE News 13 that the recession forced the city to cut back on employees in years past. However, he says times have changed.
“We’ve got 15 new positions,” said Mayor Berry.
Those include 13 new animal keepers and two new maintenance staff members.
“We’re putting those resources back in, we’re listening to the AZA on where they thought would be the best place to put (staff), taking their coaching, if you will,” said Mayor Berry.
The final clearance of all the caveats tied to AZA’s 2015 accreditation of the BioPark means that the facility is approved to stay accredited through 2020.
Executive Director of the New Mexico BioPark Society, Julie Miller Rugg says the accreditation is a “huge sense of relief.”
“The biggest thing that would have the largest impact on us is that it does really affect the animal collection that you would have, so anything that we would have currently that’s owned by another AZA accredited facility would go away, anything we want to get in the future we couldn’t get, so it really is about trade borrow, those kinds of thing,” said Miller Rugg.
“We could, you know, end up with a facility that had very little of some of the main animals that we have, so it’s a big deal to stay accredited,” said Miller Rugg.
Albuquerque’s next mayor will have to decide whether to continue funding the added positions at the zoo. The BioPark Society says it has spoken with the top polling candidates for mayor, who also said they support the facility’s mission.