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National group recognizes Pittsburgh aviary's contributions to feathered friends

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, 1:57 p.m.
Noah Petrulli, 4, of Penn Hills watches as penguins swim in the Penguin Point exhibit from the kids' viewing tunnel at the National Aviary on the North Side on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Noah was visiting the National Aviary with his mother, Jessica, and 18-month-old sister, Emma. The National Aviary earned national accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums through 2020.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Noah Petrulli, 4, of Penn Hills watches as penguins swim in the Penguin Point exhibit from the kids' viewing tunnel at the National Aviary on the North Side on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Noah was visiting the National Aviary with his mother, Jessica, and 18-month-old sister, Emma. The National Aviary earned national accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums through 2020.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) executive director Kris Vehrs, left, poses for a photo with National Aviary curator of behavioral management Cathy Schlott, holding a Eurasian Eagle Owl named Pumpkin, and the National Aviary managing director Cheryl Tracy following a presentation Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Vehrs toured the National Aviary and presented the staff with a plaque in recognition of national accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through 2020.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) executive director Kris Vehrs, left, poses for a photo with National Aviary curator of behavioral management Cathy Schlott, holding a Eurasian Eagle Owl named Pumpkin, and the National Aviary managing director Cheryl Tracy following a presentation Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Vehrs toured the National Aviary and presented the staff with a plaque in recognition of national accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through 2020.
A Snowy Owl at National Aviary on the North Side Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The National Aviary announced its accredidation Monday from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through 2020.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
A Snowy Owl at National Aviary on the North Side Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The National Aviary announced its accredidation Monday from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through 2020.
Fleury, a Snowy Owl, flies over the heads of National Aviary staff and supporters in the Helen M. Schmidt FlightZone Theater as part of a program Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The program celebrated the National Aviary's accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through 2020.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Fleury, a Snowy Owl, flies over the heads of National Aviary staff and supporters in the Helen M. Schmidt FlightZone Theater as part of a program Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The program celebrated the National Aviary's accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through 2020.

Twenty-five years since nearly shuttering for good, the National Aviary won accolades Monday for its strong financial shape and secured its rank among the nation's elite public exhibitors of animals.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums praised the effectiveness of the aviary's interactive exhibits, the promising results of its breeding programs and a concerted focus on expanding educational outreach — from taking chicks to children's homes in the region to helping set up an Andean condor clinic in Ecuador.

“We have a real gem here,” National Aviary managing director Cheryl Tracy said, “and we want people to know what goes on behind the scenes and in the field, as well as what they see when they visit.”

The national accrediting group evaluates more than 200 U.S. zoos in the areas of fiscal management, conservation, education, animal care, veterinary programs and safety. The National Aviary earned its first accreditation in 1984.

“It's a nice way to keep yourself in check,” Tracy said. “You want to always be providing that excellence; you don't want it to slip.”

The latest approval followed a June visit by a three-person inspection team and a formal hearing last month.

“They're a very financially sound organization, and they've got support from the board and community to build for the future,” said Kris Vehrs, executive director of Association of Zoos & Aquariums. She said the aviary stands out for its focus on visitor experiences.

“I love how they have it divided by all the different regions, like the wetlands,” said K.C. Miller, 38, of Aliquippa as his 2-year-old, Lea, emerged from a tunnel that lets children watch penguins dive and glide underwater. “It opens people's eyes and lets them see the different birds around the world.”

From 2008 through 2012, about 115,000 people visited the aviary annually. In 2014 — when the aviary added 63 new birds — attendance topped 139,000, and 2015 attendance is up 4 percent from this time last year, aviary spokeswoman Robin Weber said.

The aviary's budget has climbed from $3.6 million in 2009 to more than $5 million. Earned revenue through the likes of ticket sales and memberships has increased by more than 100 percent, from $1.1 million in 2009 to $2.3 million last year.

“When we started out, we paid zero of our own way, and the long-term goal was to generate revenues to pay half of our budget,” said Mike Flinn, a Downtown attorney and 25-year board member. He helped negotiate its privatization when the city wanted to close it down in 1991. “That's now been exceeded, and we're going to work toward getting to two-thirds.”

Securing accreditation every five years is essential for the aviary to participate in AZA's Species Survival Plan, a nationwide breeding program that enables the aviary to share and trade animals with other accredited organizations. Next week, for instance, the aviary is shipping one of its three burrowing owl chicks to a zoo in Knoxville, Tenn.

So far this year, the aviary has overseen 85 chick hatchings spanning 35 to 40 species; in 2014, it had 122.

The aviary engages nearly 50 species in the national breeding program, including Andean condors, keel-billed toucans, Guam rails and African penguins — whose population has dwindled from more than 2 million pairs in 1900 to fewer than 18,000 pairs in the wild today.

“What a lot of people don't realize is that whether you see an African penguin here or at Baltimore or any other zoo, it's part of a captive population in North America that is managed as one,” said Kurt Hundgen, the aviary's director of animal collections.

The aviary houses about 500 birds spanning more than 150 species. It's the nation's only independent indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated to birds.

“We'll never be able to see these in the wild,” said Roxanne Rogers, 68, of Cortez, Colo., while gesturing to a colorful toucan Monday as her husband snapped photos. “It's lots of fun and a nice way to spend the afternoon.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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