TAMPA — Every five years, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums evaluates the Lowry Park Zoo to make sure it rises to their standards for accreditation. Only 10 percent of animal exhibitors nationwide do so.
And zoo officials can't remember any accreditation period in which they didn't automatically get the five-year seal of approval.
This year may be a first.
At an accreditation meeting earlier this month, zoo officials were told they have one year to make improvements to older facilities. The zoo will remain accredited while they make their improvements, and will be re-evaluated next March.
Among the changes the association wants to see are improvements to the veterinary hospital, manatee hospital and Florida boardwalk area, and more educational signs interpreting conservation for kids. The association had no concerns about animal or visitor safety, said zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson.
"It's not like there were necessarily any surprises," said Nelson, "but there are things that take a great deal of time and resources to address."
The zoo, built two decades ago, has outgrown its veterinary facilities. It plans to build a new, state-of-the-art hospital and conservation science center, and hopes to show the association progress by next year.
And since the zoo opened a manatee hospital in 1991, more and more of the animals are being rescued and brought in to recover. This year's cold snap drew a record high patient load of 17. That takes a toll on physical pieces, such as water pumps and the heating system, said the zoo's new director Craig Pugh.
"The AZA response, especially with me new in this position, gives us a very clear road map of what we should do first with the limited resources we have," he said.
Accreditation is crucial for the zoo. Its lease with the city requires it. And the most respected zoos across the nation look for it when sending their rare, protected animals out on breeding loans.
The association temporarily revoked the zoo's accreditation in 2008, amid the controversial transfers of animals that led former director Lex Salisbury to resign. It reaccredited the zoo a few months later.
Nelson said the association's recent evaluation of the zoo has nothing to do with its former management issues. Steve Feldman, spokesman for the association, declined to speak specifically about the zoo, but said that it evaluates 20 to 30 zoos and aquariums a year. A couple get this probationary period every year, and a couple are denied.
"So the fact that the commission maintained accreditation and asked for improvements to be made is a positive development," Feldman said.
The zoo won't get another grace period next year, he said.
If it succeeds, it will get the five-year accreditation. If it fails, it won't.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.