Winky and Wanda were crying out for help. The beloved Asian elephants lived in one of the largest enclosures for their species at any zoo in the world, but they suffered nonetheless. This was 2004, and Winky, at age 51, had foot troubles, while arthritis afflicted Wanda, 46.
For mammals who roam nearly 30 miles a day in the wild and thrive emotionally through long-lasting social bonds with members of their herds, the elephants’ home at the Detroit Zoo was too confining and isolating. On top of that, the harsh Michigan winters forced the pair inside for long stretches of time, depriving them of meaningful exercise.
All of this weighed heavily on Ron Kagan, then 11 years into his tenure as Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) executive director. The result was a landmark decision: DZS would become the first zoo in the country to give up its elephants solely on ethical grounds, a move that drew widespread praise from animal welfare organizations, including a “backbone” award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
By the following spring, Winky and Wanda had moved to a 30-plus-acre refuge at the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 Sanctuary in San Andreas, California. And in that move, Kagan began establishing a reputation as one of the world’s most respected and innovative zookeepers. It has earned him numerous awards, record-setting attendance, and impressive membership growth. All of which will be his legacy when he retires this summer after 28 years at DZS. “As much as I love this place, it was time,” says Kagan, 69.
The celebrated elephant move — ending 81 years of having the massive creatures as a staple of the DZS — was a matter of balancing the interests of patrons with the needs of animals. Far from being put off by the decision, zoo lovers remained loyal and applauded Kagan for the many new programs and events he brought, most notably the Arctic Ring of Life, one of the world’s largest polar bear exhibits. That addition earned an exhibit award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as did Amphibiville, which The Wall Street Journal dubbed a “Disneyland for toads” when it opened in 2000.
The list of innovations goes on. Kagan developed the Ford Education Center as well as habitats for beavers, wolves, otters, red pandas, penguins, and tigers. And, in keeping with his lifelong effort to reform the zoo world, Kagan’s DZS established the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics and the Berman Academy of Humane Education.
“I feel really good about what we’ve done for the community and nature,” Kagan says. “The Academy of Humane Education has become important nationally and internationally in helping educate people about helping animals.”
The Detroit Zoo has rescued hundreds of exotic animals from dire circumstances since Kagan took over, including circus polar bears, three Alaskan grizzly bear cubs whose mother was shot by a poacher, and a bear that served as mascot for Hamm’s Beer.
What’s more, Kagan formed a surprising alliance with PETA, an organization often viewed as among the more extreme and adversarial animal-rights groups. In 2006, Kagan sent DZS staff to Texas to help PETA rescue more than 26,000 animals from a pet trade dealer, 1,100 of which, including kangaroos and lemurs, came to the Detroit Zoo.
“PETA has admired Ron Kagan for decades and will always be able to point to his kindness, compassion, and dedication to the well-being of each animal in his care as the example for other zoo industry leaders to follow,” PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel for Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet says.
All of this has helped Kagan shatter annual attendance records. In 2019, the last pre-COVID year, more than 1.3 million people visited the zoo. Its paid memberships has tripled since he took the helm. “The Wall Street Journal once wrote that we are the only major urban zoo they have no complaints about, and I think that speaks to why we have experienced growth,” Kagan says.
Kagan, a Jewish native of Boston with a zoology degree from the University of Massachusetts, says he went into the field as a way combining an affection for animals with an affection for Israel. Two of his grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
“I knew I loved animals from an early age, so I studied zoology, but had no clue what was going to come of it,” he says. “When the Yom Kippur War broke out between Israel and Arab neighbors [in 1973], I wanted to go over there and help the country in some way. Long story short, I wound up working at a zoo in Jerusalem.”
After more than a decade there, Kagan became general curator at the Dallas Zoo in 1986 before taking over at DZS in 1993.
The pandemic has made the past year the most challenging of Kagan’s tenure. The zoo closed for three months before re-opening last June with a reduced number of daily visitors. And in February, a female polar bear was mauled to death by its intended male mate — the first time since 1988 that an animal at the DZS had killed another.
Still, there have been positive developments, including the birth of the zoo’s first lion cub in 40 years, the first polar bear cubs since 2004, and the addition of a third giraffe. “The hardest part was having to let so many dedicated people go because, for all of them, it was more than a job,” Kagan says of pandemic-induced staff cuts. “However, our remaining staff is doing tremendous work, and encouraging things continue to happen.”