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Published: 7/15/2001

Squabble doesn't diminish a jewel of a zoo

ROYAL OAK, Mich. - First, the bad news: There is still a chill between the management of the Detroit and Toledo zoos. This spring, the two zoos abruptly stopped their longtime policy of allowing each other's members to visit their parks for free.

Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan, whose zoo was first to end reciprocity, said the Toledo Zoo was waging an aggressive marketing campaign trying to get Detroit-area residents to join its zoo, where family and individual memberships are $5 a year less. “The bottom line is we think membership in any cultural institution is a way in which a local community expresses support for the cultural life of that region.

“We would never dream of trying to convince anyone who lives in the Toledo area to buy our membership at our zoo as opposed to their own zoo. But they were telling people here they could join their zoo, and get into the Detroit Zoo, and you'll pay less. We think that was inappropriate ... I have no problem with them advertising the Toledo Zoo in this area, but in terms of memberships, basically it was being abused,” Dr. Kagan said.

A Toledo Zoo spokesman said the rift occurred because they had refused to give into Detroit's demands that they not market in Michigan.

Yet regardless of who is to blame, the quarrel is a shame, largely because it will keep many Toledoans away. The Detroit Zoo, seen as a pioneer in the field when it opened in 1928, has experienced a considerable renaissance under the leadership of the 49-year-old Dr. Kagan, who arrived in Detroit nine years ago from Dallas.

When he got to Detroit, the zoo was showing the strains of aging infrastructure, the city's own long-term economic crisis, and a series of bizarre zoo directors, one of whom had been indicted for kickbacks on animal purchases.

Dr. Kagan, who has a doctorate in zoology and began his career as a keeper in the Jerusalem Zoo, has brought about a dramatic turnaround which has seen the Detroit Zoological Society's membership zoom from 15,000 to 53,000, and annual attendance mushroom from 800,000 to an estimated 1.4 million this year.

Part of that has been due to several ambitious projects, including a Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, in which visitors have a fair chance of having a butterfly alight on their shoulders, and “Amphibiville,” a one-of-a-kind, $6 million amphibian conservation center with 100 species of frogs and salamanders, most of which are on display and some of which are so rare they no longer live in the wild.

Early this year, the Wall Street Journal surveyed 10 major zoos, listing what was best and worst about them. What especially pleased Dr. Kagan was what the national financial newspaper said was his zoo's weakest point. “They didn't find one,” he beamed. “We were the only zoo where they said there's nothing bad here.

“They said Amphibiville was our best feature. They called it `Disneyland for toads.' We hope it's Disneyland for humans, too.”

What's more, his most ambitious exhibit yet doesn't open till September: The “Arctic Ring of Life,” a $13.6 million, 4.5-acre exhibit that will include an Inuit village, polar bears, fur and harbor seals, snowy owls, Arctic foxes, and some other animals.

Perhaps the zoo's most unique feature is a simulator cabin in which up to 30 visitors can experience the way in which various animals see the world. “If you want to see what an eagle sees when he soars above the tundra, we can show you,” he said.

“We've kind of invented this new programming that is borrowed heavily from the entertainment industry,” the zoo director said wryly.

Yet while he is interested in bringing the public in, it would be a mistake to see Dr. Kagan, who personally is publicity shy, as a showman. In a corner of his private office are a whip and an evil-looking elephant goad, used to move the animals in the bad old days when the zoo put on shows. On a table is a depressing picture from decades ago showing two large polar bears in a small, barren, cage.

He keeps it there to remind himself of everything zoos shouldn't be. “Zoos used to be stationary circuses,” he said. Like most experts in animal behavior, he is totally against animals being made to perform. A national leader in zoo management and ethics, Dr. Kagan drives to Michigan State University during the winter to teach a course in zoo ethics.

“I really feel the future for us is to be a place that convenes community dialogue on important issues,” he said. “And the plight of animals is an important issue, whether it is an individual animal like a race horse or a species.”

A visitor comes away thinking the zoos in both Toledo and Detroit ought to settle on some compromise that will restore reciprocity. (My suggestion: Detroit should let in Toledo Zoo members who live in Ohio or in Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties.)

But until they do, you might want to bite the bullet and come visit anyway. Is the Detroit Zoo worth the $8 for adults and $6 for kids and seniors they charge otherwise?

Absolutely. Even considering the drive.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.



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