Council Says Zoo Won't Be Exempt From Reptile Bill, Accreditation Required

Mar 4, 2020

At an often tense meeting of Pittsburgh City Council Wednesday, officials at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium bared their teeth over a proposed city ordinance to limit the possession of alligators and other animals.

Sponsored by City Councilor Bruce Kraus, the bill would ban the ownership of crocodilian animals and red-eared slider turtles. The legislation already exempts animals that are housed by veteranarians, rescue sanctuaries and zoos that are certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But the Zoo parted ways with the AZA in 2015, after a disagreement about an AZA policy that limited staff contact with elephants. 

Zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker told council that the zoo chose to affiliate itself with other organizations.

"There are many more strenuous accreditation processes that we are involved in now, and very proud to hold," Baker said. The zoo is accredited by the American Humane Association and the Zoological Association of America, whose board of directors is chaired by Baker herself.  

Baker acknowledged that a lease agreement between the zoo and the city required the zoo to have AZA accreditiation. She said that the zoo had been negotiating with the city over that matter in advance of its current lease expiring in 2022. But she said that in the meantime, the zoo should be exempt from Kraus' bill, in part because of its work with city Animal Control workers.

"We help them out whenever we can when they call and have a need for looking at an animal in a facility or a house," she said. "We've offered to hold animals for them in the past when they didn't have housing with Humane Rescue."  

But Kraus said he couldn't remove accreditation requirements from the new bill, because doing so would "bypass a manadatory accreditation via the lease they have with the city." 

"You're asking me as a legislator to flaunt your obligation to the law as we write law. ... I can't do that," Kraus said. "I don't want to be all Judge Judy here, but she would say the same thing: You signed a contract. ... Just because you sought other accreditations, you're still legally bound to have the AZA accreditation." 

The ordinance calls for grandfathering in animals, so the legislation would allow the zoo to keep any reptiles currently housed there. But Baker said the ordinance would bar the zoo from taking on new animals like gharials, Indian crocodiles that are the largest of the species.

"We just received the gharials, which is another endangered species that we're working with," Baker said.  Council agreed to hold the bill for next week.