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Penguins prove things can work in Detroit

Apr 13, 2016

Here’s a little secret about those of us who cover news: We don’t like to admit it, but to a great extent, we begin what we do by being stenographers for the institutions of society.

We tend to divide news into little silos: Police news, political news, business news, sports news, entertainment and society news, etc. Then we divvy up coverage that way.

Journalists sometimes have difficulty with stories that don’t fit neatly into one silo or another, and sometimes they miss them altogether.

Twenty years or so ago I discovered a fascinating man living in Birmingham who was completely off the charts.

He had been the last husband of the famous silent film star Gloria Swanson, the singer Billie Holiday’s alter ego and the ghostwriter of Lady Sings the Blues, and had written best-sellers under his own name. Once, I went to see him just as Yoko Ono was leaving his house.

But since he didn’t make much of a splash in local circles, few knew about him.

We see other stories as essentially one-dimensional. The Detroit Zoo is one of those. Next week, its biggest project ever is going to open: The Polk Penguin Conservation Center, an utterly breathtaking, 33,000 square foot facility shaped like an iceberg which will be home to more than eighty penguins of four different species. I don’t believe there is anything like it in the world.

A month ago, I toured it while it was still under construction, and didn’t want to leave. Like many little boys, both zoo director Ron Kagan and I had been obsessed by the story of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose ship Endurance had been stuck in the ice.

Exactly a century ago, against all odds, with only three small lifeboats, he managed to bring his entire crew across thousands of miles of ice and ocean to safety.

Kagan has been to Antarctica five times, and took pains to make this as authentic as possible. There’s a replica of part of the Endurance in the new penguin center and a huge Shackleton exhibit. We think of the zoo as sort of a wonderful animal park, one that Kagan has vastly improved in the 23 years he’s been there, and that’s very true.

But that’s not really what the zoo is, or the most important thing Kagan does.

The first item in the zoo’s mission statement calls on it to “demonstrate leadership in wildlife conservation and animal welfare,” and under Kagan’s leadership, the zoo has become internationally recognized in those fields, and has taken a major role in saving populations of threatened species from the humble local mudpuppy to the Puerto Rican golden frog.

Detroit’s zoo has been recognized as the area’s best-managed non-profit, and as a leader in local science education programs, including some that reach out to inner-city kids.

The zoo, incidentally, no longer gets any city or government funding, except for a millage overwhelmingly approved by voters, who were happy to tax themselves to support the zoo.

Michigan has a lot of problems, but we also have a zoological society that is both world-class and an example of how public-private partnerships can work. That is, if we are willing to look and think in more innovative ways.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.