The Arctic and Antarctic Ring of Life: A Conversation with Ron Kagan, Director of the Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoo has long been acclaimed for its strong focus on animal welfare and providing the best lives possible for the animals in its care. It also is one of the best zoos in the nation featuring the state-of-the-art Arctic Ring of Life (arguably the world’s best polar bear habitat), Polk Penguin Conservation Center (the largest and most modern penguin habitat in the world) and the National Amphibian Conservation Center (the only amphibian conservation center at a zoo in the world.) Much of this is owed to Ron Kagan, who has led the zoo since late 1992. “We have a very intentional strategy to make sure if something is not at least good we remove it," he reflected. "We make sure all our animals live a great life. This was recognized by the Wall Street Journal. Our philosophy is that we can’t do everything but the things we do we try to make sure they’re really, really good.” This is the story of how he made the Detroit Zoo the phenomenal zoo it is today.

@ Detroit Zoo

After spending ten years studying and working at a zoo in Israel, Kagan was hired as the general curator at the Dallas Zoo in 1986. “I was at the Dallas Zoo during an exciting time,” he recalled. “We were building the Wilds of Africa and doubling the size of the staff. It’s very rare to go through that kind of rapid institutional growth. We felt we were doing a ton of cutting edge things and we transformed a very traditional zoo to a very modern one. We also developed a team which included research tech. We built two career tracks- one from zoo keeper to supervisor to curator, etc. and another for people far more interested in the sciences who didn’t want to become managers but rather work in animal science. They would be part time zookeepers, part time researchers."

@ Dallas Zoo

When the Wilds of Africa opened in 1990, it dramatically expanded the zoo and was the first zoo exhibit to feature all the different environments of Africa. Most of these habitats were seen on a monorail and mainly featured a wide variety of African hoofstock and birds. “The monorail was a very exciting thing for visitors to experience,” Kagan remembered. “We also developed the okapi conservation program, which was one of the first.”

@ Dallas Zoo

Even better was the zoo’s state-of-the-art facilities for gorillas. “Atlanta had opened their gorilla facility which was by far the best at that time and we tried to do something similar,” Kagan elaborated. “We made naturalistic habitats for the gorillas outside but also really focused on the indoor areas. So often zoo indoor areas are still not much different than they were fifty years ago. However, we created a gorilla indoor facility that was radically different. One side of the building opened up with garage door-like devices so even when the animals are indoors they have access to fresh air, sunlight and sounds, which are all stimulating.”

@ Dallas Zoo

In December of 1992, Kagan was recruited to become director of the Detroit Zoo. “I had never thought about Detroit before I came,” he recalled. “However, when I came for the interview process, I thought there was potential. It seemed that for quite some time the zoo had been struggling and really needed rejuvenation. Also I sensed a tremendous historic community commitment to the zoo, which is key to the possibility of a better future. I was also intrigued by the diversity of this community. It’s important to have a healthy background for such a major community physical space as a zoo.” Kagan’s predecessor was Steve Graham, who was known for culling surplus animals and had what he dubbed a “purist” philosophy to animal care. For instance, he would not intervene to care for babies abandoned by their mothers. Kagan's view was, “We have the responsible to take care of these animals from cradle to grave and only breed animals we have the ability to provide for. Since I’ve been here we’ve been very focused about animal welfare and humane education from day one.”

@ Detroit Zoo

One of the biggest controversies surrounding Graham’s tenure was the drowning of a chimpanzee in the water moat of the newly opened Great Apes of Harambe, then the largest habitat for the apes in the nation. Another chimpanzee nearly drowned soon after. “At that time Great Apes of Harambe was just for chimps and had a water moat,” Kagan explained. “It was terrific in size but I had been part of the chimp SSP when I was in Dallas and tried to convince the SSP for the need to establish guidelines and rules that would prohibit water moats. I had found that 50% of chimp habitats around the world with water moats had a drowning or near drowning incident with the apes. Containing an animal by killing them is unacceptable. So we spent a lot of money to retrofit and build a dry moat so none of us had to worry about the chimps getting harmed by their containment.”

@ Detroit Zoo

The dry moat made the already spacious and naturalistic chimpanzee habitats one of the best in the nation and a great place for them to exhibit natural behaviors and live in a rich social context. After a few years it was decided to bring in gorillas to rotate with the chimpanzees. “Until the 1980s we had all three great ape species but sent away the orangutans and gorillas so we could focus on doing chimpanzees well,” Kagan elaborated. “We had devoted all our resources to chimps but about six or seven years after I came to Detroit we ultimately felt we could do a great job with gorillas as well. Our facility was big enough and we brought gorillas back after a significant time. We have a bachelor group of gorillas who came to us as youngsters from the Bronx Zoo. Since then we’ve been managing the bachelor group and our plans are eventually to send them out to bring in a family of gorillas.”

@ Detroit Zoo

A significant focus is put on providing for the welfare of the zoo’s gorillas and chimpanzees. “The apes have tons of enrichment,” Kagan remarked. “In the wild individual animals have fairly significant choice and control over a lot of things so we try to bridge that gap. Zoo habitats need to be designed so they are enriching all the time. The apes have an elevated, multi-acre habitat where they can interact which each other and see, smell and hear everything that’s going on around them.” When at the zoo, you sometimes can see chimpanzees up in their trees looking out at the polar bears.

@ Detroit Zoo

Ron Kagan feels strongly animal welfare should be at the center of everything done in zoos. “What we want to do is have our animals thrive,” he said. “Life for anyone, any animal including humans beings, includes a set of challenges. We don’t think we can create perfect situations- there isn’t a perfect situation for any animal anywhere in the world. What we do try to do is give our animals as much choice and control over their lives as possible. This means we make sure they are able to cope with whatever challenges they might face and exhibit natural behaviors. Take our polar bears for instance. We intentionally built their habitat as a four acre elevated habitat as well- so the polar bears are always able to see, smell and hear 360 degrees around them. This provides them with an incredible array of stimulus. We don’t just occasionally hide a sardine somewhere, they can sense all around them all the time.”

@ Detroit Zoo

When he took charge in the 1990s, Kagan started a full force effort to rebuild the zoo both morally and physically. “What I tried to do was provide vision and a path for the zoo,” he elaborated. “One of the first things discussed was the need to eliminate anything I felt was not 'good.' To some extent zoos set the expectation to the public of what’s a good place for animals and seeing animals in a subpar space is ultimately not good for visitors either.” A number of exhibits were removed in the next few years. “The river otters were in a tiny hole in the back of the zoo and we sent them away,” Kagan recalled. “It wasn’t until years later we were able to bring them back with a new otter facility. There was a snow leopard barred cage that was knocked down.” Even some popular species, such as Asian elephants and river hippos, were phased out since Kagan did not feel the zoo had the climate, space or resources to provide an appropriate space for them.

@ Detroit Zoo

@ Detroit Zoo

In many cases old exhibits would be combined to make room for a brand new habitat. “That’s what we did with our kangaroo area,” Kagan remarked. “We took three habitats and made them into one just for the kangaroos.” As a result, the space became a realistic recreation of the Australian outback and the largest walkthrough kangaroo habitat in the nation. Similarly spaces once used for Asian elephants and black rhinos got combined to house white rhinoceroses in an improved habitat. Kagan stressed the updating process is never finished. “This is a journey which you never stop doing,” he explained. “What was good twenty years ago is unlikely to still be good. We recalibrate all the time, reassess all the time. This is a moving target. The more we learn the more we realize we have to always be doing something completely different.”

@ Detroit Zoo

Kagan also is a believer zoos should specialize in what they do best at rather than trying to have as many animals as they can. “Ethics, science, conservation need and compassion have all been infused in our decision making,” he commented. “For instance, we recently decided to send MANY large birds- vultures, cranes- to other places because they can’t fly here. We think we can do much better at saving amphibians, the class of animals that are most endangered. We do things which we think make sense. It does not make sense to prevent an animal from normal locomotion. Zoos used to put anteaters on concrete floors for ease of cleaning where they couldn’t dig which doesn’t make sense and frankly was cruel since they dig for a living. We’re always thinking about what the animals want and need.”

@ Detroit Zoo

In 1995, the Detroit Zoo opened the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, which features no animals except butterflies. Instead, it helps guests learn about nature through a variety of nonliving exhibits. “It’s about helping people understand how to interpret and understand nature,” explained Kagan. “This is the only fine art collection at a zoo anywhere in the world. We show the relationship people and different cultures have with nature over many centuries. We have a lot of technology in there including science on a sphere. We’re one of only three zoos to have that. We’ve really used theater and technology at this zoo in a big way.” He credited the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery as one of many features which “all contribute to a different zoo experience.”

@ Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoo broke major ground in 2000 when it opened the National Amphibian Conservation Center, the only one of its kind at any zoo in the world. “The Wall Street Journal called it Disneyland for toads,” Kagan remarked. “We have over 1000 amphibians of over 100 species and most of them are endangered or vulnerable. We open the eyes to the public by taking these animals which people think of as slimy and little and making them into the stars. It’s creative and fun for visitors but is also great for the amphibians. We do cutting edge reproductive work behind the scenes and have had many reintroduction programs for frogs and toads come from our facility.” The National Amphibian Conservation Center won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award in 2001.

@ Detroit Zoo

In 2001 the Detroit Zoo opened Arctic Ring of Life, a four acre recreation of the Arctic which has often been called the best polar bear habitat in the world. “It was designed to give the polar bears maximum simulation,” Kagan reflected. “We had always been leaders in polar bears and felt we really needed to make a large leap forward. We went up to Pond Inlet where we spent time with the Inuit and went out on the pack ice. We tried to understand the environment these animals live in as well as the culture around them. We tried to make a habitat that was great for the polar bears and the public.”

@ Detroit Zoo

The Arctic Ring of Life not only gives the polar bears the largest facility for their species in the U.S. but it allows them to roam through three environments that they roam in nature: grassy tundra, open sea and frozen pack ice. At one point visitors go through a long underwater tunnel with only acrylic separating them from the polar bears swimming above and around them. The interpretative graphics and features of the complex educate visitors about how these animals interact with their environment and engages them in the plight of polar bear conservation. The scope, naturalism and authenticity found here is second to none.

@ Detroit Zoo

@ Detroit Zoo

“We have a fancy ice block making machine for them and we put fish and fruit in there,” Kagan added. “We built a 300,000 gallon saltwater pool for the polar bears and seals. Although it is very expensive to make seawater on an ongoing basis, it is much better for the animals. We made a commitment from day one that this would be great for the polar bears. They also get great enrichment by seeing the seals next door, with only an acrylic wall separating them. I think the interpretives help people understand the cultural and scientific pieces.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Detroit Zoo

Since the exhibit opened, the push for polar bear breeding has grown significantly. “When we opened it in 2001, we were trying to prevent polar bear breeding to make room for rescued bears,” Kagan elaborated. “Now we’re encouraged to breed them since they’re not many left in the wild or in zoos. We had a cub some years ago and our trying to mate our pair.” Additionally, the zoo has rescued polar bears from circuses and other subpar conditions. “We’ve rescued thousands of animals, some of which have gone here and some of which have gone to other places,” Kagan stated. “We’ve rescued bears, lions and many other animals. It’s a case by case basis but we always try to help when we’re uniquely capable of providing for them.”

@ Detroit Zoo

In 2015, the Detroit Zoo welcomed wolves to its grounds for the first time since the 1980s. “The wolves were done specifically and intentionally because we were very concerned about the move to hunt wolves in Michigan and we needed the public to understand, experience and be compassionate for wolves,” Kagan explained. “We built a wonderful two acre facility where the wolves are thriving and the public is loving it. We’re able to tell our 1.7 million visitors a year that wolves are not a threat to people- only two people have been killed by wolves in America in the past 100 years.”

@ Detroit Zoo

The zoo also has a boardwalk made out of recycled plastic bottle caps which takes visitors through a slice of the local wetlands. “The Cotton Family Wetlands has been important because it allows us to highlight Michigan’s wildlife and wild places,” Kagan said. “It’s not just about looking for what animals people find appealing but about what we should be doing for conservation, welfare and public policy. People can feel that in everything we do.”

@ Detroit Zoo

For its most recent project, the Detroit Zoo built a state-of-the-art Antarctic penguin facility named the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. Opened to the public in spring 2016, it is the largest penguin facility anywhere in the world. “The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo to build a standalone penguin facility back in the late 1960s,” Kagan commented. “At the time it was extraordinary but we felt, given our expertise and history with penguins and need to talk about climate change, it was time to do Antarctica. We put a lot of time and energy into designing and building this. We went down to Antarctica several times and worked with a lot of biologists to make a magnificent facility for the penguins.”

@ Detroit Zoo

The results have been spectacular. “It gives visitors a thrilling experience where they see the penguins from above and below water,” Kagan elaborated. “They pass through the tunnel passage where 80 penguins are swimming around them. The experience also recreates the crossing of the Drake Passage. It shows people what the Southern Ocean is really like. There’s so many unique features in there- it’s quite a spectacle.”

@ Detroit Zoo

@ Detroit Zoo

The new facility is also incredible for the penguins as well. “We have data loggers on some of the penguins so we know when they’re in the water and how deep they go,” Kagan remarked. “The king penguins are now spending ten times as much of their activity in the water as they did previously. The penguins don’t need to go anywhere to find food yet they're swimming ten times more and have dramatically changed their behavior in this larger, more naturalistic space. They’ve gone from a decent facility to one that is so dramatically different and huge. It’s been fantastic for the penguins and the keepers since they’re all behaving very naturally.”

@ Detroit Zoo

@ Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoo has no plans at stopping anytime in the near future in terms of great new spaces for animals. Having already expanded the space for the zoo’s lions, the zoo is currently expanding their Amur tiger habitat to be three-four times the size of the old space. It will also be designed for modern husbandry and let visitors get much closer to the big cats. Similarly, the zoo’s giraffe house has just been greatly expanded to allow for better husbandry of the animals. The zoo plans to add a number of new animals including pygmy hippos, bongos and snow leopards.

@ Detroit Zoo

@ Detroit Zoo

Perhaps, the most unusual exhibits will be for two types of animals often overlooked. “We’re turning the old penguin facility into a bat conservation center to put the spotlight on a very important but misunderstood animal,” Kagan said. “We’re also going to do a turtle conservation center. We’ve now documented that individual turtles have their own personalities. We’re doing a lot of cool research on turtles and will be able to highlight it through this center. People often think noncharismatic animals are biological robots but they’re not. We now know so much more about the cognitive and emotional capacity of animals.”

@ Detroit Zoo

A major focus of the Detroit Zoo is on conservation. “There are a lot of things we do,” Ron Kagan stated. “We do a Earth Watch-like experience in the Amazon where volunteers work with us in the field. We do conservation programs in the field on six different continents- from penguins in the Falkland Islands to gorillas in the Congo. We are constantly using our message to help people understand what challenges there are for animals. We also do a lot of sustainability programs. We no longer sell plastic bottles and our silverware are all made out of a potato starch. We’ve just started our anaerobic digester which powers electricity to our animal hospital. Whether it’s gorillas, penguins or amphibians the bigger issue is to help the public understand how what they do dramatically impacts animals and the need to minimize the footprint and impact of people on the environment. That’s ultimately what conserves our planet.”

@ Detroit Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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