Hilo’s Rainforest Zoo

An investigative report on Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens’ lack of professional accreditation

Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser
Photo by Rosannah Gosser

Caged animal in a zoo

Located about seven miles outside of Hilo, Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens is a popular daytime destination for young families and tourists drawn to flora and fauna. Its 12-acre facilities house around 200 animals, including anteaters, colobus monkeys, and Bengal tigers, and is the only zoo in the U.S. situated within a tropical rainforest. But despite featuring extensive botanical gardens, the zoo has never applied for or received professional accreditation as an animal exhibitor.

To become accredited through organizations such as the Association of Zoos & Aquariums or the Zoological Association of America, a zoo must gain official recognition and approval as a facility for exhibiting animals. Experts from AZA or ZAA, for instance, evaluate each zoo on elements like research and conservation efforts, enrichment programs, and professional standards of animal management and care.

Since its completion and opening in 1978, Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens’ lack of accreditation has caused concern among local organizations and community members. When the zoo was preparing to receive two Bengal tiger cubs in 2016, the Hawaiʻi Tribune-Herald reported that the Hawaiʻi Island branch of the Humane Society of America was challenging the import process of the cubs because Panaʻewa was not recognized through AZA or ZAA. The administrator of Panaʻewa Recreational Complex, Pam Mizuno, told the Tribune-Herald that the zoo would consider exploring ZAA-accreditation in the future.

Over two years later, however, Panaʻewa has still never applied for accreditation. According to Dr. Lynn Morrison , who teaches primatology at UH Hilo, the zoo “barely fulfills any of the requirements” necessary for professional accreditation.

Morrison describes several conditions of animal enclosures throughout the zoo, like metal bars and concrete floors, as being fundamentally problematic for the health and well-being of its animals. She expresses particular concern for the zoo’s arboreal primates, such as the colobus monkeys, who are meant to exist primarily in trees but are denied access to anything but metal poles and bare, severed branches in their enclosure.

“They cannot get around how they usually do without trees to hang from,” Morrison tells Ke Kalahea. “They can’t get their food, pick leaves, or make nests; their whole lives are taken away from them. It absolutely affects their mental health, and they’re both mentally and spiritually destroyed.”

“In isolation, they don’t get any interaction or socialization with other primates,” continues Morrison. “Isolate a human from other humans, don’t allow them to walk around on two feet, and put them in an enclosure where they have to get around on all fours. It’s abuse.”

While a zoo’s lack of accreditation does not necessarily invalidate it as an establishment, achieving AZA or ZAA accreditation qualifications can keep zoos accountable and provide insight into aspects of facility management that might not be apparent to visitors. However, less than ten percent of the 2,800 animal exhibitors recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are AZA-accredited, and only 60 exhibitors are accredited through ZAA.

In March 2016, Hawaiʻi News Now reported that the Honolulu Zoo had lost its status as an accredited zoo, citing a letter from AZA that read, "the lack of sustained leadership at the Honolulu Zoo, as evidenced by a turnover of five directors in five years, and insufficient financial support by the City/County and Honolulu Zoo Society, have resulted in three recurring five-year AZA accreditation cycles of underachievement." The Honolulu Zoo currently remains unaccredited by both AZA and ZAA.

“Accreditation is very costly and would involve infrastructure and additional staff,” states Mizuno of Panaʻewa Recreational Complex in an email to Ke Kalahea. “Without additional financial support, we are unable to pursue accreditation.”

“The question is how cost effective is it to pursue? Have you reviewed the accreditation requirements? There is no requirement for our zoo to be accredited to participate in some of the AZA programs,” Mizuno continues. “I maintain professional membership in both AZA and ZAA which allows me to keep up with information and news regarding their organizations and other zoos.”

Despite keeping the animals in what she maintains to be insufficient conditions, Dr. Morrison claims that the zoo has directed funding elsewhere. “What they’ve been motivated to change is all of those beautiful palm trees perfectly lining the driveway, the landscaping, and erecting a playground. They’ve been highly motivated to make changes, just not any changes to ameliorate the decrepit conditions that the animals are in.”

Friends of Panaʻewa Zoo, or FOZ, is a nonprofit organization owned and operated by the County of Hawaiʻi that was formed to promote and provide for the zoo. FOZ encourages visitors to donate funds at the zoo gift shop, through special events put on during the year, and by contributing to the purchase of elaborately decorated benches that feature different animals housed at Panaʻewa.

In 2006, the facilities were renamed to Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens through an ordinance passed by the Hawaiʻi County Council. The title “Gardens” was added in order to emphasize the newly arranged botanical collection that was stated to complement the animal exhibits “designed to blend with the existing terrain and vegetation.”