When Ron Kagan closed the Detroit Zoo‘s Elephant Show, the elephants were happy, but many humans were not.
Elephants were a flagship attraction that drove attendance, and no American zoo had ever abandoned prized pachyderms for humanitarian reasons. But 16 years ago, Kagan, the executive director of the soon-to-retire zoo, decided Detroit’s harsh winters were unnatural for Winky and Wanda, the elderly elephant couple born in Asia at their time. charge. They both suffered from arthritis and foot aches caused by the harsh grounds of the zoo, and the lack of exercise and socialization had left them depressed.
Still, the idea of ââshutting down the zoo’s most popular draw baffled the zoo world and worried the board of directors overseeing it. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, in fact, threatened to withdraw accreditation from the Detroit Zoo if Kagan accepted it.
But Kagan refused to give in. And when, in 2005, Winky and Wanda were moved to a sanctuary in California, Kagan took his place at the forefront of a revolution in zookeeping thinking that now seems obvious: animals in captivity. should live in suitable climates with facilities that, as far as possible, mimic their natural habitats.
Kagan, 69, retires in June after a nearly half-century career that began at what is now the Tisch family’s biblical zoo in Jerusalem during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He proudly returns on the landmark decision that defined his career – and helped define the modern zoo.
âWhen I started out there were polar bears in zoos in South Texas. Now tell me, could this make sense? Kagan said.
For triggering this shift in mentality in the zoo world, he received praise from animal welfare groups, including perhaps the most strident, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“He understands that above all else, customers want to know that animals in captive facilities are treated humanely,” said lawyer Brittany Peet of the Captive Animal Law Enforcement Unit. by PETA. âThere are many more staff in accredited zoos in leadership positions who now have these progressive ideals, and they are the future of zoos. We’re going to continue to see more and more Ron Kagans over the years.
At the start of the Yom Kippur War, Kagan was a 21-year-old senior from suburban Boston studying zoology at Amherst College who feared Israel would not survive another week. Kagan’s maternal grandparents were murdered in a Nazi concentration camp, and her mother was evacuated to Britain from Czechoslovakia in the Kindertransport in 1939.
âI had a strong feeling that I had to go and help Israel,â he said.
When he arrived in Tel Aviv at night, a rumor spread that he was a zoologist – âa bit of a stretch,â he said.
In the morning he worked at the Jerusalem Zoo.
It was a 28-acre expanse in Givat Komuna, a poor and bombed-out area of ââJerusalem, with over 200 species, including most of the 130 animals mentioned in the Bible.
Kagan stayed at the zoo for a few more months before returning to Amherst to complete his bachelor’s degrees in zoology. A week after graduating, he returned to Israel to do 18 months of active service followed by eight years in the reserves, during which time he lived in Kibbutz Degania Alef, then obtained a master’s degree in zoology at the University of Jerusalem.
âI never intended to stay in Israel,â he said. âBut whenever I thought, ‘It’s time to go home,’ I would go to Yad Vashem. And then I would go, ‘Okay, I can’t. I cannot leave Israel. ‘And I did that for several years. And then finally I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to Yad Vashem and just going home. So in 1985 I decided it was time to come home, which I did.
By then, he said, he had become disillusioned with Israel’s approach to the Palestinian issue.
âI went there to defend Israel. I did not go there to be neither an occupier nor an aggressor, âhe said. “And I felt that there were situations where Israel was, in my opinion, losing its way.”
This prospect, which he saw as a matter of compassion and human responsibility, followed him to the United States, where Kagan – who married and had two children in Israel – took over as conservative. General of the Dallas Zoo.
There he began his efforts to transform zoo management from running animal museums to living animal welfare facilities focused on education and research. Among his early triumphs, he oversaw the rescue of an orangutan from a Clint Eastwood movie that, after Hollywood, found its way to a roadside zoo in Texas.
“It became clear that there were so many exotic animals everywhere in terrible situations, and zoos were part of the problem, because long ago, zoos bred and sold a lot of these exotic animals,” he said. -he mentioned.
In 1992, he began an eventful 28-year stint as Director of the Detroit Zoo. In 2006, the zoo barely survived Detroit’s financial collapse, and in 2007 Kagan survived a scandal in which it was revealed that he had not completed his doctorate in zoology as his CV claimed. .
Kagan endured, said DZS Board Chairman Tony Earley as he masterfully transformed the zoo with a litany of new exhibits and initiatives. Long before the decision to relocate the elephants, he had earned praise with the Arctic Ring of Life, a two-acre polar bear exhibit that includes three environments – the grassy tundra, the open sea, and the frozen sea ice – and the National Amphibian Conservation Center, also known as Ambiphiville, which the Wall Street Journal called “Disneyland for toads” when it opened in 2000.
âHe took it from being kind of an OK zoo to a zoo with world-class exhibits,â said Earley, who served on the DZS board for most of Kagan’s tenure.
Under Kagan, the Detroit Zoo rescued hundreds of exotic animals from dire circumstances, including circus polar bears, lions used in dumps, three Alaskan grizzly bears whose mothers were shot by a poacher, and a bear that served as a mascot for Hamm’s Beer. And, in keeping with its lifelong efforts to reform the zoo world, Kagan’s DZS established the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Welfare and Ethics and the Berman Academy of Humane Education.
âA lot of people see zoos as a great civic attraction – but what Ron has done is to improve education, the research we do and the work on animal welfare,â Earley said. The removal of the elephants âwas controversial, but I think everyone understood that was part of what we were trying to establish as a leader.â
Meanwhile, dating flourished in the years after Wanda and Winky left. The establishment welcomed more than one million visitors per year until the COVID-19 pandemic. Kagan said this confirms his view that the public supports the idea of ââhumane treatment for their zoo animals.
âWe have brought animals here that make sense for our climate,â he said. The new arrivals will – and rightly so – be snow leopards.
But Kagan himself will be gone – he said it was just time to move on. The transition was disappointing news for PETA’s Peet, who lives in countryside Michigan.
“The residents of Michigan have been incredibly fortunate to be able to learn at the Detroit Zoo that it is not okay to just see animals in captivity, but that the focus needs to be on the welfare of animals in captivity.” , she says. “This is what generations of children have been able to learn at the Detroit Zoo.”