A Really Cool Plan

Detroit Zoo unveils plan to build new $20-million penguin exhibit
Photograph by Cybelle Codish

Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society, doesn’t exactly talk with the animals, but he did sense some measure of envy among the penguins after the zoo’s polar bears moved into their new home.

And who could blame them if their feathers were a tad ruffled? The Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium, after all, was ahead of its time when it debuted in 1968, offering for the first time a natural environment where 60 penguins could live in a three-sided habitat encircled by a large pool. The design allowed the penguins — Kings, Rockhoppers, and Macaronis — to “fly” through the water, much as they would in the open sea.

The Penguinarium was first renovated in 1985. Three years ago, Kagan and his team set out to redesign the exhibit. Much like the initial planning for the bears’ Arctic Ring of Life, Kagan quickly set aside the renovation idea in favor of a newly constructed exhibit, to be called the Penguin Conservation Center, or PCC.

Here, for the first time, Kagan unveils the zoo’s plans for the $20-million exhibit, to be built just north of the historic Wildlife Interpretive Gallery near the zoo’s entrance on Woodward Avenue. Projected to open in 2016, the PCC will be the largest project ever undertaken at the Detroit Zoo.

HD: What research did you undertake in planning for the PCC?
RK: Just as we did with inventing the next generation of polar bear experience, we wanted to build a home for the penguins that was centered on conservation. Penguins live in Antarctica, the southern portion of South America, and in other extreme environments. As part of our master plan, we wanted to take what was a brilliant design of the Penguinarium in the 1960s and utilize all of the latest research and technology to bring forward a world-class experience. We’ve undertaken advanced research, or reconnaissance, and I’ve visited Antarctica twice in the last two years, once with our chief life-sciences officer, and once with one of our board members. We met with various research stations to really understand the unique and extreme environment of Antarctica. We also delved into the 100-year-old experiences of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who led incredible expeditions to Antarctica that were a testament to survival, endurance, and courage. Our goal was to make the PCC as accurate and authentic as possible. What are the stories and the unique aspects of the penguins that we should be telling people, and how does that fit into what is a rich environmental story?

HD: What will visitors experience as they approach and enter the exhibit?
RK: The outside of the building will be an interpretive image of a tabular iceberg, almost like a crevasse or a fissure breaking through the water. Shackleton was in our heads as we set about to design the structure, both inside and out. The white exterior, with its different edges, will look like an iceberg. As ice gets older, it gets compressed, and the ice begins to turn blue. The strange colors and forms give us enormous creative license. There will be a waterfall from the top of the building to signify a thawing iceberg, and there will be a pool of water in front where people can play. We’ll also convert it into a skating rink during the winter. There will be lots of solar tubes that will feed natural light into the building. The building will stretch 50 feet from top to bottom, and half of that is water. It will be quite a ways underground. You cannot see penguins under the water in the wild, but when you’re in the lower level of the building, you’ll see penguins swimming, or flying, around you. It will be a theatrical experience, almost as if you’re on a ship that goes down 25 feet into the water. There will be a lot of ice, of course, and acrylic tunnels underneath, somewhat like the Arctic Ring of Life. In addition, we’ll be able to bring VIPs into an area where they can interact with the penguins in a safe, controlled environment.

HR: What else will be in the building?
RK: There will be life support and animal-management activities going on behind the scenes, and visitors will take a ramp that will bring them to the underwater gallery. It will be twice as deep as the polar bear exhibit, and the drama will be pretty incredible. When you enter the building, you’ll see a huge habitat for sub-Antarctic penguins. You’ll see the bow of Shackleton’s ship, and then you’ll walk through these gale-force winds and perhaps a little snow. We may even do something in the tunnel walkway to simulate a ship moving through waves with video imaging. There will be two tunnels that will take you down into the interpretative gallery. In addition to the large windows, part of the floor will be acrylic so that the penguins surround you. We’ll have a lot of special effects. As you leave the gallery, you’ll come up into the Antarctica region, which is obviously harsher, and will be intertwined with icebergs. We’ll also have to figure out a way to clean all of that glass.

HD: Will there be dining or a gift shop?
RK: Space is so valuable that all we have room for is people and penguins. We could use assets nearby to support dining and gifts. We did the same thing with the Arctic Ring of Life. It wasn’t until later on that we added a gift shop (near the exit).

HD: How’s fundraising coming?
RK: By the end of June, we should be finished with the design, and then we’ll spend quite a bit of time on fundraising. We plan to start construction next year, and the project will take a year and a half to build. Our plan is to open in 2016. We’ve started to do some prospecting now, and the primary fundraising will be in the summer.

HD: How will the PCC fit into the zoo’s “greenprint” strategy in terms of zero waste to landfill facilities and significant energy savings?
RK: We’re working on a way to power the building at carbon zero. There are a number of moving pieces right now in terms of our energy strategy. It will be very environmentally sensitive. We have plans for natural light, as well as using the latest lighting technology. The penguin’s light cycle is different from humans’, and we will account for that. We intend to reuse the dirt being dug up. Some plants will be replanted, and we’ll look to save as many trees as possible. We’ll use many recycled materials in the buildings, as well.

HD: As part of the new penguin home, you’ll be adding a fourth species, Gentoo. How will the zoo acquire and integrate penguins into the new facility?
RK: In the old days, zoos would go out and catch animals or hire outfits to do it. Generally, we don’t do that today. We send eggs and chicks from our zoo to other zoos, and vice versa, so we’ll bring in 20 Gentoos from other zoos. A lot of the trade that goes on is in breeding programs. There are some 200 accredited zoos, so that’s a great outreach effort for us. We want to make it as comfortable as possible for the penguins. The 60 penguins we have now have individual names (like Mad Dog and Nibbles). They’re really wonderful animals, and they’ll be getting quite a new home. The new facility will have north of 300,000 gallons of water (to be kept at 37 degrees), which is more than the polar bears and the seals combined.

HD: What research will be conducted?
RK: We’ve been taking infrared pictures of the penguins. The testing in the field is very intriguing. There’s research from a couple of years ago that documented stress in horses by measuring the surface temperature of the eye. The theory is when the pupils dilate, there’s more heat coming out, and we’re looking to see if the same would hold true for penguins. We may better be able to detect injuries or telltale signs of stress. You also have to look at such things as cataracts in penguins. Because they live longer in a stable environment, we’re trying to better help them age and enjoy life.

The Detroit Zoo’s Ron Kagan (above right) visited Antarctica to research the planned Penguin Conservation Center

HD: What’s it like to visit Antarctica?
RK: The difference between sub-Antarctica and Antarctica is quite dramatic. The temperature can be as harsh as minus-100 degrees, with winds of 200 mph. Frankly, I was surprised I wasn’t blown away. The water is very cold. We did go in the water. It’s called a polar plunge, and it’s sort of a rite of passage. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to a lot of exotic places like Africa and the Galapagos Islands. I can say with certainty that Antarctica is the most unusual and extreme place I’ve ever been. I can see why it captured the imagination of so many explorers. One interesting thing is that the ice on Antarctica is as much as three miles thick. If it all melted, it would raise the water level around the world by some 200 feet.

HD: What will become of the Penguinarium?
RK: It eventually will become the Bat Conservation Center. In my mind, it will be like the Batman movies. It will be very dramatic, theatrical, and likely spook a few people.

R.J. King is the editor of DBusiness magazine.