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Environment & Climate Change

After years of leadership in animal welfare, Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan to retire

A water tower advertising the Detroit Zoo
Courtesy of the Detroit Zoological Society
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Ron Kagan, who’s run the Detroit Zoo for 28 years, will retire from his role as executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society this summer. He led the zoo through significant changes, bringing it from an entertainment-based attraction to a conservation-focused, educational destination. Stateside spoke with Kagan about his approach to his work and some of the zoo’s accomplishments under his leadership.

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End of the elephant exhibit

Kagan says good cultural institutions keep evolving. The Detroit Zoo’s decision to end its elephant program for ethical reasons in 2004 — the first animal facility of its size in the nation to take that step — was part of the zoo’s continued growth, he says.

“We saw the same problems that zoos have seen for many, many decades, whether it’s animals developing arthritis, animals developing foot problems, behavioral issues,” he said. “Common sense reinforced what we were seeing, which is that we didn’t see improvements in the animals behavior or life expectancy or really, any other kind of measure that you would look at.”

From entertainment to ethics

Kagan has worked to steer the Detroit Zoo towards conservation, which provides an ethical environment for animals, and away from entertainment-based attractions, which have a long — and often, cruel — history in the U.S. and abroad.

“We really want to be around other species, and that’s certainly understandable, but the issue is, it should not be at their expense,” he said. “Back in the day when I started, over 40 years ago, there were lots and lots of situations that … defied any type of logic. Keeping polar bears in South Texas — I mean, how ridiculous. So we’ve come a long way, and there’s a long way to go, and I’m happy that the science actually has caught up, because the science of conservation is robust and has been for a while, and continues to get better.”

Changing zoos, changing expectations

As zoos across the U.S. continue their shift toward increasing animal welfare and promoting conservation in their exhibits, they’ll need to balance new experiences for animals with new experiences for visitors, Kagan says.

“We need to stop the trap of thinking that we have to do instant gratification for a visitor, otherwise they won’t be happy,” he said. “To some extent, we’re at fault for that, for shaping those expectations that you won’t have to spend more than 30 seconds to find an animal in a particular habitat or exhibit, and if you do have to spend more than 30 seconds, then it’s okay to be frustrated and to think, ‘Well, there aren’t any animals at the zoo.’ That is an ongoing challenge for zoos, and I think we have to be much more creative about how we are presenting the situation.”

The Detroit Zoological Society has created a search committee to find Kagan’s successor. For more, listen to the full conversation above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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