At the heart of the world’s leading authority on zoos lies a dirty secret.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has long held itself up as the pinnacle of captive animal welfare. On its website, it proudly claims to “unite” its members in conservation and insists that all such members abide by its code of ethics. It is understandable then, that, when visiting a WAZA zoo most people feel at ease, believing that the animals they are seeing enjoy the best possible care.

Yet, sadly, life inside a WAZA zoo can often fall short of these standards.

One only has to look at its association member, The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) to see the reality. In half of all JAZA aquariums you can still find wild-caught dolphins purchased from the brutal Taiji drive hunts.

While WAZA itself does not condone the slaughters, which kill thousands of dolphins annually, it has done nothing to punish those of its members who purchase live dolphins caught alongside the doomed pods. The sale of wild-caught dolphins is now the main economic incentive behind the hunts, with each animal selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, trainers from aquariums all over the world line up to take their pick of the pod before those left behind are slaughtered for meat.

Last year, WAZA and JAZA sat down to discuss the drive hunts and while WAZA officially admitted that “JAZA members still play a role in the live takes,” it also said that this take was “relatively minor compared to the large demand for export of dolphins to many non-JAZA institutions.”

Right now, 76 percent of Japan’s captive dolphins are living out their days in JAZA aquariums. Of the 247 captured during the 2012-2013 Taiji drive hunt season, only 51 were exported. The remaining 196 were sold in Japan. In fact, more than half of JAZA’s 65 members are believed to still actively purchase drive hunt dolphins.

But, even if we accept WAZA’s claim that it is a relatively “minor” number, the fact that JAZA facilities are purchasing these dolphins at all is surely a violation of WAZA’s welfare standards. Drive hunts have long been considered a particularly cruel method of wild capture. Not only are dolphins regularly injured or drowned during the process, but they are then re-traumatised by the experience of seeing their pod slaughtered. It is certainly not rare for animals to die on the way to their “new homes.”

And yet, it seems that the purchase of drive-hunt dolphins is just one of the many atrocities carried out every day by WAZA members.

At India’s Mysore Zoo, elephants are routinely beaten, animals sit in filthy cages, “swaying”, and mortality rates are at alarming highs. Just last year, Copenhagen Zoo killed and dissected an unwanted young giraffe to a watching crowd – including children – before euthanizing a healthy family of lions. SeaWorld Orlando continues to exploit its animals in hourly performances, including Tilikum, the killer whale at the center of the documentary, Blackfish, who famously drowned his trainer. And, at Dehiwala Zoo, the line between circus and zoo is blurred further still as elephants are made to perform in live dance shows for visitors every day.

These are but a few of the many clear breaches of animal welfare standards that are still common practice at WAZA zoos.

Meanwhile, the association continues to present itself as a leader in animal welfare and conservation. By allowing members who violate its own code of ethics to stay within the fold, WAZA also lets them hide behind its reputation. Membership to WAZA has effectively become a costly tick of approval – a way to buy respectability at the expense of good, compassionate practice.

“Members of WAZA will ensure that all animals in their care are treated with the utmost care and their welfare should be paramount at all times,” reads the WAZA code of ethics. “Any legislated codes for animal welfare should be regarded as minimum standards.”

It is interesting, then, that when a German court ruled in 2010 that the Magdeburg Zoo had violated animal rights law by euthanizing three hybrid tiger cubs, WAZA didn’t immediately fling them from its ranks. Instead, WAZA actually defended the zoo, claiming they had pursued “an entirely reasonable…action.” Even more bizarrely, the body went on to then condemn the verdict of the court as “legal and moral hypocrisy.”

If WAZA won’t even enforce its own minimum standards – namely, that zoos act lawfully – why does it have a code of ethics in the first place?

This month, a new #ShameWAZA campaign is publicly calling on the body to take disciplinary action against those of its members found to be in breach of ethical standards. Already, the online petition has attracted thousands of signatures.

With the campaign only a week old, exactly how WAZA will respond to this pressure remains to be seen. But it is clear that members like JAZA take their relationship with WAZA extremely seriously. To be kicked from the fold would send a very strong message throughout the community that welfare standards must be met.

It is in WAZA’s power to greatly influence the ways its member zoos are run. And it is in its best interests to do so.

After all, the world is watching WAZA too.

Image source: Heather Paul/Flickr