The Association of Zoos and Aquariums revoked ZooMontana’s accreditation on Monday, leaving the future of several zoo animals in question.
Zoo board president Ian McDonald said the AZA accreditation, approved in September, was revoked because a long-term funding plan was not sufficiently in place.
McDonald said the revocation letter, received via email, also cited the zoo’s history of financial struggles as well as the relationship between the board and “key” staff members.
Before the AZA letter arrived, the board had officially accepted the resignation of the zoo’s executive director, Jackie Worstell, and the zoo’s marketing director, Daniel Lundquist. Both were put on administrative leave on Monday. Hired in 2006, Worstell will be paid through July 15. Lundquist’s final day is June 1.
McDonald said the board will hire an interim director by the end of the week. He would not divulge any information about the impending new hire, only saying, “They are a qualified person for the job.”
“The main thing is to clear up everything in-house and make sure there are enthusiastic and motivated leaders to lead the zoo to the next era,” McDonald said.
He said the zoo cannot reapply for accreditation until September 2012.
“If everything is in order by then, we can (reapply) at that point,” McDonald said.
He said the zoo will remain open, even without its accreditation. He had already contacted representatives with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, hoping to keep some of the animals.
McDonald will also be contacting the AZA zoos that have loaned animals to ZooMontana. He said it is up to the loaning zoo to determine if the animals need to leave.
“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” McDonald said. “It’s possible some of the AZA animals could stay. We’ll contact each zoo and see what their feelings are.”
In early February, zoo officials reported that the facility was having financial problems. In March, the AZA rejected a letter from the zoo board outlining the zoo’s progress toward financial stability.
Fearing loss of accreditation from the AZA, which certifies 233 zoos and aquariums across the United States, the zoo board turned to the community for help and raised more than $500,000 in donations and pledges in three weeks.
Despite the successful March fundraising effort, the AZA sent two inspectors to the zoo for a site visit on April 21-22 to assess the zoo’s finances and animal care.
With the zoo’s accreditation revoked, that means $250,000 of the more than $500,000 raised could be taken back. Half of the funding was pledged pending the outcome of the AZA decision.
“That’s disappointing, but the zoo will ask and see,” McDonald said. “There is a lot of reorganizing that needs to go on here. (The zoo needs) A good solid plan for the future.”
McDonald said he hopes to contact those who pledged money to see if they are willing to help get the zoo back on track.
Things took another turn last week when McDonald was told the zoo's liability insurance policy with Philadelphia Insurance was dropped because of late payments during the winter months. The zoo was able to repay debt with money raised by the community, but it was too late.
The zoo was closed for two days before another policy was put in place.
Despite it all, McDonald said the zoo has more cash on hand than ever before. This summer will be a determining factor in its future.
“We need a successful summer,” McDonald said. “Their (the AZA’s) concern was we weren’t going to have a successful summer with certain key staff, which is why we accepted their resignations.”
ZooMontana had been accredited by the AZA since 1999, about 15 years after it opened. Unlike most of the nation’s zoos, ZooMontana has no public funding or endowments. Its revenue comes from admissions and donations.
Erin Turner and her 3-year-old daughter, Lauren, of Billings were visiting the zoo on Monday afternoon.
Turner was hoping it won’t be their last time.
“I was afraid that would happen,” she said, learning of the zoo’s accreditation. “That’s why we came out here, to see everything in case.”