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Detroit Zoo director says he's not against hunting, he's against "bastardization of science"

Dec 17, 2014

Ron Kagan has been head of the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 tumultuous years. During that time, he fought off an effort by Detroit City Council to close the zoo and helped win its independence years before the city’s bankruptcy gave the art institute its own near-death experience.

He’s also led a transformation of the zoo from a somewhat tired park to a leader in worldwide conservation efforts and a much more exciting place.

The zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life is the nation’s largest polar bear exhibit; next year, a new penguin conservation center and wolf habitat will open. Attendance has swollen so much that Kagan is now facing the unwelcome chore of planning a new parking structure.

Yet the zoo director has been in the news this year for other reasons. He strongly opposes wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula, and has gone to Lansing to say so to the state Legislature.

He’s been more than willing to do this, despite less-than-veiled threats from a couple of lawmakers, and attacks from groups who say he has an “anti-hunting agenda.” But Kagan is a biologist, and feels it his duty to speak out. Not because he opposes hunting in itself. He doesn’t.

Nor is Kagan anybody’s idea of a wimp. Athletic and fit, he was once a tank commander and has seen combat. But he doesn’t think much of trophy hunting.

And what he is really against, he told me, is “the bastardization of science.” Kagan said that claims that a wolf hunt is a scientific way of controlling a too-large population are totally bogus.

“I don’t believe that a population of 650 wolves is too many animals for the Upper Peninsula,” he said. Even if it was, allowing hunting is neither a scientific nor a sound way of dealing with it.

Wolves have never killed a human being in Michigan, and livestock losses in the sparsely populated U.P. have been minimal.

What’s more, a hunt that kills 40 or 50 wolves actually could end up putting livestock more at risk, not less. Wolves have complex social structures, and killing random members of a pack could lead to dangerously destabilizing behavior.

It would make far more sense to transport an entire pack to Isle Royale, where the wolf population is on the point of becoming extinct. Michigan voters last month overwhelmingly voted against wolf hunting in two separate referenda.

But anticipating that, the Legislature moved to take the voters right to determine that away.

The issue is headed to the courts. But to those who say he wants to take away their right to hunt wolves, Kagan says, “if they belong to all of us, why can’t I buy a license to not have them killed?

The way he defines it is that welfare is about individuals; conservation is about the welfare of an entire population. Still, he loves the story about the child who sees thousands of starfish washed up on the beach, and an old man throwing them back, one by one.

“Why are you doing that?” the boy says. “You can’t save them all. It doesn’t make much difference.” “Yes,” says the man, holding a starfish. But it makes a difference to this one.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.