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July/August 2010

The Detroit Zoo's Ron Kagan: Animal Advocate

by Michael Krieger
Photos by Mark Gaskill

Lots of people talk to animals....
Not very many listen, though.... That's the problem.

~ Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

When you think of a zoo, do you envision a refuge where rescued animals are made safe from mistreatment?  Zoo Director, Ron Kagan does, and that’s very good news for the beloved beings who call the Detroit Zoo home.  For Kagan, what is clearly important above all else is taking excellent care of all the zoo’s inhabitants.  It is his deep love for animals, and his commitment to their humane treatment, that drives him to ensure that the zoo provides them with exceptional living conditions which are as natural as possible.

For Kagan, though, living conditions are only one important part of an overall vision of animal care that also involves rescue of exotic animals found in abusive situations.   Under his watch, the zoo has steadily increased its involvement with rescuing and caring for animals which have been mistreated elsewhere, and it is this fact that seems to satisfy him most when he considers his work in the field of zoology.

Kagan has served as the director of the Detroit Zoo since 1992 and, during his tenure, the zoo has transitioned away from a more traditional approach to become a national leader in the compassionate treatment of animals in captivity.  Kagan proudly cites several examples of the fruits of this labor:  the rescue of three lions that were living in a Kansas junkyard; a black bear that had been the mascot for a beer company; a polar bear performing in a Puerto Rican circus.  Most recently, the zoo participated in the December rescue of nearly 27,000 animals seized in a raid on a Texas exotic animal dealer.  According to Kagan, this was the largest such rescue ever in the United States.

The Detroit Zoo’s commitment to treating animals with respect and compassion was never more evident than when Kagan chose to voluntarily ship the zoo’s two elephants, Winky and Wanda, to California in an effort to improve their living conditions.  As Kagan recalls, the pair were “suffering from arthritis and foot problems common with captive elephants in cold climates.  While elephants can endure cold temperatures, they are better suited to a mild climate which allows them to be outside, safely roaming over large areas of natural substrate all or much of the year.  Despite expansion of our elephant habitat in 1998, there was no realistic way to provide an ideal physical space or social environment.  They could not thrive here so they needed to be in a place where they could.”

As advances in the humane treatment of zoo animals spreads, others in positions of responsibility may be emboldened to take broader steps than they had previously thought possible or practical.  The ripple effects of such changing attitudes about animal conservancy are evident around the globe.  Kagan enthusiastically mentions that “last year, the country of India announced that all elephants residing in zoos and circuses must be relocated to wildlife sanctuaries.”



Michiganders may be surprised to learn that our Detroit Zoo is home to two programs which greatly enhance the chances that animals in captivity will be treated compassionately.  The programs focus on understanding each animal’s specific needs and adjusting care plans accordingly.  The Madeleine Berman Academy for Humane Education was created in 2002 to help people help animals.  Kagan says the Academy “uses a variety of teaching strategies - from traditional instruction to storytelling, role-playing, theater and virtual technology - to educate audiences about the need to treat all living creatures with empathy, respect and gentleness.”  He points out that the Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW) “was created to call attention to, and increase resources for, the scientific assessment of zoo animal welfare, the development of best practices and the advancement of animal welfare policy,”  adding that it is not typical for animal welfare to be systematically examined in this way.

According to Kagan, The Detroit Zoo was the first in the nation to use “moated habitats that showed animals in a natural setting,” has the only permanent fine art gallery inside of a zoo and offers visitors a chance to witness North America’s largest polar bear exhibit, complete with an underwater view of swimming bears and seals through a 70-foot Polar Passage.  Kagan further states that the Zoo’s Adopt-a-Garden program is the largest at any zoo in the Unites States, and the annual “Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo” event “is the nation’s largest off-site companion animal adoption program.  Since 1993, more than 14,000 dogs, cats and rabbits have been placed into new homes. 

Being the director of a zoo must certainly come with its lion’s share of pressures and challenges.  Still, when asked to name his favorite parts of his role as zoo director, Kagan enthusiastically states:  “Everything.”  The Detroit Zoo is a Michigan gem, and it is encouraging to know that the man at the center of it all finds great happiness and satisfaction in bringing the highest possible quality of life to the zoo’s residents while at the same time offering visitors from Michigan and beyond the chance to experience the wonder of seeing these exciting and exotic animals up close.  It’s a good feeling to know that, behind the scenes, employees of the Detroit Zoo are working diligently to ensure that the creatures in their care are being nourished, nurtured and supported so that they may have as natural an experience as is possible in a zoo setting.  As we zoo lovers take our leisurely strolls around the beloved grounds, we are typically focused on the quality of our own experiences.  For Ron Kagan and the rest of the zoo staff, however, taking excellent care of the animals is the “mane” thing.



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