Jack Hanna, Tom Stalf Talk Niabi Zoo Accreditation - News and Weather For The Quad Cities -

Jack Hanna, Tom Stalf Talk Niabi Zoo Accreditation

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It's opening week at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, and even as visitors return for the season, the zoo continues to work to get its accreditation back from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

That accreditation a topic we asked Jungle Jack Hanna to weigh in on during a visit to our studio today.

The world famous wildlife expert Jack Hanna stopped by with a whole collection of animal ambassadors from the Columbus Zoo to spread his message of conservation.

Tom Stalf, the current CEO of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was with him. Stalf took the job in Ohio after transforming the Niabi Zoo when he was director here.

Stalf says two zoos are not all that different from each other.

"Really, we love animals and we give people an opportunity in their communities to see animals and to support conservation and have fun with their families, so it's the same," Stalf said.

"Now, Columbus is bigger, and we have 2.2 million guests that come in," he added.

And, the Columbus Zoo is accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums -- Something Niabi Zoo does not have at this point.

"It's a proud accomplishment, let's put it that way. It's not only pride, it means that you're living up to what you should," Jack Hanna said, explaining the significance of the AZA accreditation.

After losing its AZA accreditation back in 2011 because some animal enclosures weren't up to standards, regaining that distinction has been a goal Niabi Zoo officials have been taking very seriously.

Last year, the tough decision was made to send elephants Babe and Sophie to another zoo with a more suitable habitat for them. This year, the work to bring other enclosures up to AZA standards continues:

"Accreditation for the zoo is still a big priority here. We've been working pretty hard to get that accomplished. We still have some more work that needs to be done before we get there though. One thing we need to do is update some of the exhibits, so we need to get the lion exhibit done. That's a big piece of the project," Marc Heinzman, Niabi Zoo's current director, told us.

Updating the lion exhibit is a $3 million project - One which the zoo does not have the money for right now.

"Niabi will still be a zoo here, with or without the accreditation. But it's very important to have the accreditation only because it helps you go that next level up," Hanna said.

Without the AZA accreditation, it's harder for Niabi Zoo to take part in breeding programs with other zoos or to bring in new exhibits and animals on loan. Those are the kinds of attractions that would bring in more visitors and more revenue for the zoo's operation and growth in the future.

"It's so vital to be part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums," Stalf said.

But, the animal experts say it's up to the people of this area to make it happen:

"The community zoo needs community support," Stalf said, "and I'm 110% sure that they're going to become accredited very soon."

Niabi Zoo is offering free admission now through the end of next week to mark its opening for the season this year.

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