You are likely to be startled by how drastically it has improved, both from the standpoint of the animals and the visitors.
Some of the exhibits, such as the Arctic Ring of Life, and the new Amphibian facility, are absolutely unique. Chimpanzees are no longer cruelly forced to perform for crowds, but live in what is at least an approximation of their natural habitat.
The lion’s share of the credit for this belongs to Ron Kagan, who took over a somewhat rundown and scandal-plagued institution sixteen years ago. Kagan is a rare combination; a trained academic zoologist who is also skilled at marketing and facility management.
However, he is also somewhat shy, doesn’t like the limelight, or the media spotlight, and courts it only when he has to.
Right now, he has to. The zoo, which no longer gets any money from the city of Detroit, needs a small millage levy to continue to prosper. Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties are going to be asked to approve one-tenth of a mill for the zoo.
If approved, that would mean the owner of a house worth about $200,000 would pay about ten dollars a year. If you are renting, you won’t pay anything. That is less than one-eighteenth the amount that residents of Toledo, Ohio are assessed for their much smaller zoo.
The role of zoos has also drastically expanded since the era when they were mostly collections of animals behind bars. The last time I was in Kagan’s office a few years ago, he had a snapshot on his desk of a polar bear in a barren cage that looked like a jail cell.
“Why do you have that here?” I wondered. “To remind myself what a zoo should never be like,” he said. Not everybody is a fan of zoos.
I know a radical animal rights activist who hates them. “These animals don’t belong in captivity, but in the wild,” he said. That argument might have had some validity in 1908. But today’s zoos are critically essential to the actual survival of some species in the wild.
Plus, they are home to an increasing number of species who have essentially no primeval habitat to which to return. Most zoos today take part in a highly sophisticated international species survival plan that involves carefully breeding animals based on their genetic code, to make sure the next generation is adequately diverse.
Zoos today also play a vast and growing role in conservation and education, perhaps especially in Detroit. Where else can an inner-city child have her assumptions challenged and her interest in wildlife stirred? There’s a book called The Biophilia Hypothesis.
That’s the idea that human beings are naturally drawn to other living things, and enriched by them. If you look into your heart, I suspect you’ll know that’s true.