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Published: Friday, 8/13/2004

An ethical move for Detroit Zoo's elephants

ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Whatever their politics and whatever their views of what's happening in the state and the nation, in recent years there has been one thing just about everyone in Michigan was happy about: The Detroit Zoo.

That is, until the director, Ron Kagan, announced a startling decision this spring. This fall, he will send away the zoo's two Asian elephants, Wanda and Winky, because he simply feels it is not fair to keep them in captivity.

And they won't be replaced as long as he has anything to say about it, which means the zoo, which has had at least one elephant ever since the place opened in 1928, will have them no more.

That has prompted the first major controversy surrounding the zoo since Mr. Kagan arrived at the end of 1992, and inaugurated sort of a renaissance at the facility, which really isn't in Detroit at all, but suburban Royal Oak.

Since then, the zoo, which by the 1980s had become a bit rundown and scandal-ridden, has again been recognized as one of the best zoos in the country. Anyone who hasn't been there in a decade is bound to be blown away by the vast range of new exhibits and improvements.

They include the Arctic Ring of Life, which simulates a natural polar environment; a stunning Wildlife Interpretative Gallery, a vast exhibit that shows great apes in something close to their natural habitat, and, for frog and salamander lovers, the National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Attendance has soared, and the zoo has won favorable national attention in everything from industry journals to the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. All of this was largely due to Mr. Kagan, 52, a wry and self-effacing man who has a doctorate in zoology, is fascinated by the science of management, and is delighted to talk about anything at the zoo except himself.

Lately, however, he has been talking a lot about elephants, which traditionally have been among the most popular animals at any zoo. "Our mission is celebrating and saving wildlife, and educating people about them," he said.

"But there is an ethical dimension. Anyone in charge of an animal has a responsibility to give that animal the best quality of life possible, and we just can't do that adequately here," he said. The zoo would need to set aside 20 acres and put a heated dome over half of it, "Which would cost maybe $50 million, which would be just crazy to contemplate."

Currently, the zoo's two elephants live in an enclosure that is just over an acre. That's higher than industry standards, but far less than they really need. Winky, 51, and Wanda, 45, suffer from arthritis and foot problems from being confined in such a small space; elephants in the wild often roam for miles every day. "Besides, they don't belong in cold climates, anymore than you can responsibly maintain polar bears in the deep South."

So before winter, they will be resettled in a vast wildlife refuge in either Tennessee or California, depending on input from the American Zoological Society. Instead, the zoo will use the former elephant area to show rhinoceroses.

That decision was denounced in a Detroit News editorial, which said the zoo should keep the elephants, which after all, "don't have to worry about lions biting them on the backside." One reader wrote in and suggested the zoo director be sent "to roam in California or Tennessee instead."

But zoo officials were astounded that the vast majority of responses supported the decision. "We normally think 200 letters or e-mails on an issue is big. We have gotten more than 2,000 on the elephants - 90 percent of them supporting the decision to give them a better life," Mr. Kagan said.

Some old-timers, such as Beatrice Scalise of Plymouth reminisced about the days when kids could come to the zoo and ride on an elephant, then added, "I have more respect for animals nowadays, so I say let them go free."

People will have a final few months to say good-bye. Mr. Kagan, who lives in a house on the zoo grounds, says he isn't at all surprised if there are some hard feelings. Nor does he expect all zoos to follow his lead. (The Toledo Zoo isn't.)

"We've been told all our lives that it is OK to have elephants in captivity. You can't expect people to suddenly understand overnight." Yet he has faith that in a world in which sensitivity to animals is growing, Detroiters will "get it" and continue to support the zoo. "We have to be creative in how we promote nature in ways that go beyond the traditional," he says.

"That's the challenge."

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Not necessarily a good dream: The Aug. 21 annual Dream Cruise, an annual event in which people fill Woodward Avenue in ancient vehicles, is a mixed blessing for Mr. Kagan.

On one hand, he loves cars. On the other, it effectively blocks the zoo entrance, and can cost the park as much as $50,000 in lost revenue.



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