HONOLULU - A year ago, the Honolulu Zoo's accreditation was put on hold because positions needed to be filled, repairs needed to be completed and animal exhibits needed upgrades.
This week, Mayor Peter Carlisle and Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo announced that those issues have been addressed and the zoo has received four-year accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA is the leading accrediting organization for zoos and aquariums in the country.
"It accredits only institutions that achieve rigorous standards for animal care, education, wildlife conservation and science," Carlisle said. "A high bar has been set and we intend to maintain it."
The national accreditation means Mollinedo can move ahead with his vision for the Honolulu Zoo, which attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year. His long-range plan starts with becoming a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"(That's) going to be critical for us to establish ties throughout Southeast Asia, Japan, China, Australia and work with them not only on conservation programs, but also on being able to bring many animals from around the world into our collection," he said.
If the zoo hadn't made a turnaround, it might have had trouble holding on to some of its animals. Accreditation is a must for partnering with other zoos in conservation programs or working with endangered species.
"We would not have been allowed to breed our tigers, nor would we have been allowed to send our tigers to other Mainland zoos or other parts of the world because we would not have been allowed to participate in (species survival program) for Sumatran tigers," Mollinedo said.
The zoo is home to other protected animals, including several bird species and cheetahs, he pointed out.
Mollinedo took charge of the Honolulu Zoo in December 2010, shortly before the accrediting team's first visit.
Since he's been there, the city has invested more than $1 million in repairs, he estimated. There were corrosion problems that needed to be dealt with, and termites caused so much damage to animal barns that some had to be completely rebuilt.
The staffing issues also have been addressed. The zoo just hired a second veterinarian. A new reptile curator, additional elephant program staff and grounds maintenance workers have also come aboard over the past year.
Significant capital improvements are also evident, starting with a new entrance that also makes it easier to find the zoo's exit, Mollinedo said.
In the African Savannah exhibit, two new lions have been moved into a recently renovated enclosure.
The elephants have a brand- new 1.5 acre enclosure, which is nine times larger than their old one. The almost $12 million exhibit also includes two 50,000-gallon swimming pools.
"I can't imagine you can go to the elephant's new compound and not realize that they're happy, making a mess of everything," Carlisle described. "I don't know if you'd call them galloping, but they're actually running along and diving into that pool. That's an event for everyone to enjoy."