Ron Kagan at the Arctic Ring of Life
Ron Kagan at the Arctic Ring of Life. (Detroit Zoo)

A Friend to the Animals … and Other Inspiring ‘Tales’

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with nature and critters,” said Ron Kagan, executive director/CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), when I asked how far back his passion for animals went. It was the first question I posed to Kagan, 69, during our recent phone conversation to discuss the major change coming in his life.

Kagan officially announced his retirement earlier this year after an illustrious and transformative 28-year run at the helm of Detroit’s zoo. For now, he’ll remain with the DZS until a search committee identifies his successor, which is expected to be sometime this summer. 

The number of accomplishments during his tenure may be matched only by the number of species represented at the zoo — which is around 300, to help spare you the trouble of counting the next time you visit.

Under Kagan’s care, zoo attendance has doubled, and memberships have tripled.

Currently, guests are asked to schedule a time slot prior to their visit at detroitzoo.org/reservations to help maintain capacity limits amid the COVID pandemic.

Zoo tower
Zoo tower Detroit Zoo

During the Kagan era, Detroit’s zoo has been named the greenest zoo in the nation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and has received the highest rating from Charity Navigator, placing it in the top 3% of all U.S. charities. 

Then, there are the innovative, iconic exhibits opened under his leadership that have raised the bar for zoos, including the Arctic Ring of Life (at its opening, the world’s largest polar bear exhibit), the National Amphibian Conservation Center, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest.

Love for Winky and Wanda 

It wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Kagan that he might consider the exhibit he was responsible for closing to be among his biggest accomplishments. In 2004, sighting the deteriorating physical and mental conditions of the zoo’s aging, treasured elephants, Winky and Wanda, Kagan arranged for their relocation. In 2005, they were moved to an animal sanctuary in California that provided them the room and natural habitat to live out their lives in comfort. They did so until their passing — Winky at 56 in 2008, Wanda at 57 in 2015.

The effort initially received pushback, even by zoo associations, but there was no compromise for Kagan when it came to the ethical welfare of the pair of pachyderms. For persevering, he received high praise from an unlikely source to side with a zoo — PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Kagan maintains a close relationship with the organization in their animal rescue efforts.

“I think people don’t realize that, in some ways, we’re like a healthcare system,” Kagan says about his philosophy of running the zoo and caring for the animals. “We have several thousand individuals, and we treat them like individuals. The difference between us and a healthcare system is that we’ve got like 300, maybe more different species. So, with healthcare, frankly, it’s easy. It’s one species. All humans. For us, the complexity is multiplied by 300.”

Reason for Retirement

Turns out nothing specific is pulling Kagan away from the place that has been his beloved home for nearly three decades. It just seemed to be the right time.

Ron Kagan at the Arctic Ring of Life
Ron Kagan at the Arctic Ring of Life Jerry Zolynsky

“Is it the right time to write a book,” I asked? “There have been several people wanting me either to write a book or they want me to let them write a book. But I don’t know,” Kagan said, deferring that decision. “I might continue to do some film work,” he added. Kagan has been involved in several documentaries.

I did end up learning about one zoological project Kagan’s fully committed to in retirement and one surprising sports passion he may delve back into when, as I suggested, he’s “let back out into the wild.” More on that later. But first, a look at the intriguing life journey of one of the country’s most innovative and respected zoologists.

Bit by the Animal Bug

Was a dog bite Kagan suffered really the inspiration for his zoology career? He can’t say for certain, but the story he shared about one such bite was certainly an interesting conversation starter. I just wasn’t prepared to learn the incident included a surprising second biter.

Four-year old Ron Kagan was nestled in the backseat of his parent’s car. The suburban Boston family had just picked up their new puppy — a boxer. “We were bringing him home, and I couldn’t have been more excited. His name was Bobby. I was pulling on anything and everything. I mean, there were ears and there was a tail. I was just sort of, you know, becoming a scientist exploring this creature.”

Bobby the baby boxer returned the favor. “I guess I did something wrong because he bit me,” Kagan said. “But my response instantaneously was to bite him back.” Which little Ron did. “So, I guess that was the start,” he said, before adding wryly, “I really don’t do that anymore with animals.”

Jewish Identity

Kagan’s youth included his family’s attendance at a Boston temple. “I was bar mitzvahed, but religion was never really anything particularly significant for me. It was really what my parents and, in particular, my mother had gone through that I think shaped actually quite a bit of my life.”

What Kagan’s mother “had gone through” was surviving the harrowing life-and-death journey as one of the 699 mostly Jewish children evacuated from Czechoslovakia to Britain in 1939 on the eve of WWII. It was the escape from the impending Holocaust that would come to be known as the Kindertransport. Left behind were Kagan’s maternal grandparents — his grandmother who perished in Auschwitz and his grandfather who perished in Dachau.

Detroit Zoo
Detroit Zoo

“My mother was one of Sir Nicholas Winton’s children,” Kagan said. Winton was the heroic British banker and humanitarian who, at peril to his own life, formed the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, the forerunner of Kindertransport. He was referred to as the “British Schindler” and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003. Winton was also rewarded with a long life, passing away in 2015 at 106.

More than 70 years after the fateful train ride that would save his mother’s life, Ron Kagan arranged for an emotional and unforgettable reunion. “I took my mom and son to England to meet Sir Nicolas Winton,” Kagan told me. “We had an amazing experience.”

War Zookeeper 

Ron Kagan has kept the memory of his mother and grandparents’ destinies close to his heart. It was in their honor that at age 21, the self-proclaimed pacifist made a life-altering — and potentially life-threatening — decision in 1973 that would be an homage to his family’s Jewish heritage and, in an unsuspecting way, expedite his zoological experience.  

“When the Yom Kippur War broke out, I dropped everything to go there,” Kagan said. Dropping everything included dropping out of his final year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he was studying zoology.

“I had other friends who were talking about going the following summer to volunteer on a kibbutz or do something to help,” Kagan recalled. “During those first 10 days, it looked like Israel was about to be pushed into the Mediterranean. So, the idea of waiting until next summer seemed ridiculous to me.”

Kagan remembers the image of the darkened runway upon his arrival in Tel Aviv, a blackout to prevent the airstrip from being a nighttime bombing target. A long way from a college campus, Kagan said, “I didn’t fully appreciate what I was doing.”

Within hours of his arrival, word had spread that an American had arrived who was a “zoologist.” A bit of a premature promotion for the college senior, but a strange twist of fate that would intersect his dedication to his family’s history with his passion for animals.

By the first morning in Israel, “they’d already whisked me off to go to Jerusalem to go take care of animals at the zoo,” now known as the Tisch Family Zoological Garden. The battlefield action he had anticipated was put on hold — for about a year.

Polk Penguin Conservation Center
Polk Penguin Conservation Center Detroit Zoo

After several months of caretaking, he returned to Amherst to complete his studies. But Kagan was far from finished with his pledge to help Israel.

You’re in the Army Now

Only a week after his graduation from Amherst with a bachelor’s in zoology, Kagan returned to Israel to serve 18 months on active duty. He was in the armored corps stationed at the Golan Heights and went to commander school. He remained as a reservist for another eight years. 

By the end of his decades-long stay in Israel, Kagan earned a master’s in zoology at the University of Jerusalem, got married and had two children. Often when he got the urge to come home, a visit to Yad Vashem would pull at his heartstrings and delay his return.

Eventually, Kagan had his American homecoming in 1985, taking over the role of general curator at the Dallas Zoo until he ventured north in 1992 to assume the leadership of the Detroit Zoo.

Stepping Down, Not Stopping

When his final day at the Detroit Zoo comes, Kagan will continue to lead an international team that is developing a new code of ethics for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. He also has tentatively agreed to doing some guest lecturing. Kagan noted that his paternal grandfather didn’t retire until age 102 and lived until age 109.

However, before he becomes too busy, he says he’ll also “follow the advice of some very wise friends who keep telling me ‘don’t make any commitments for a few months. Just let yourself be free.’”

He likened it to taking a year off after college before entering the workforce. If things get too slow, you might find Kagan pursuing another of his passions — competing in Lotus Formula car racing in England.

National Amphibian Conservation Center
National Amphibian Conservation Center Detroit Zoo

Kagan will also make up time for what COVID has curtailed — out-of-town visits with his mother, 94, and father, 95, and, of course, catching up with his children: a daughter and son who work for the CDC and Tesla respectively.

It Takes a Zoo Village 

During my two encounters with Ron Kagan, first for the photoshoot for this story, followed by my nearly hourlong interview with him, it was quite evident that he would rather deflect the attention from himself and instead focus on his dedicated zoo staff — and zoo supporters.

“It’s an incredible group of people,” Kagan said. “The animal care staff, the veterinary team, our amazing board, committee members and our invaluable volunteer corps are so amazing. To a person, everyone who contributes here is so unbelievably mission-driven.”

He also has fond parting words for the Detroit community and civic leaders who helped save the zoo from economic ruin. 

“I love this community, especially for what it has done over the decades, including long before I came here, to create such a phenomenal sanctuary for animals and people. It’s just been an incredible honor to be able to be a part of the continuation of that.”

My interview with Kagan left me with many fascinating anecdotes about his career, but there is one-word picture I won’t soon forget. When I asked him to share what he thought was one of the funnier moments he experienced during his career at the zoo he offered the following: “Well, there really are a million, but I guess one of the recurring joyful events that I have is singing with the donkeys. They’re so sweet. I mean, really, it’s just wonderful.” 

I would love to hear a chorus of Kagan and the donkeys before he turns in his zoo key. In the meantime, to borrow a lyric from the song “Talk to the Animals” from Dr. Dolittle: If we could talk to the Detroit Zoo animals, they’d say: “Well done, Ron Kagan. We will miss you, our friend.” 

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