It was after hours at the Detroit Zoo. As our golf cart flew past installations and exhibits, my host, Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO, gave me the best kind of guided tour – through the eyes of the chief vision officer.
A word of explanation: as the new leader of Independent Sector, I am spending time with members in their communities, seeing their work through their eyes and, as now, sharing my reflections on our nonprofit sector. But it doesn’t stop there. My hope is for readers like you to weigh my observations and share your stories too.
At a time of polarization, and balkanization around ideas, with more of a focus on defending points of view than seeking opportunities for co-creation, Ron’s insights – derived from decades at the zoo, provided just the inspiration that I had taken to the road in search of.
There are at least three parts to the vision that Ron and his team are working to realize at any one time – and there are parallels for us all.
First, the zoo conserves the natural environment in so far as possible, protecting and, where possible, breeding endangered species, while also serving as a safe haven for the roughly 3,300 animals residing there.
Secondly, Ron founded the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to set a high bar for the ethical treatment of animals at his facility and elsewhere. As our golf cart whirled past, Ron pointed out the expanded wolf enclosure with more realistic terrain, a renovated gorilla habitat made safer for gorillas as well as people, and the spacious new penguin exhibit designed to have actual snow, where penguins can actually flourish. In a celebrated case, Ron became concerned that the zoo’s elephants, always a big attraction, were not thriving but in fact suffering. Because the zoo is a community trust and Ron is a courageous community-based leader, he went out to the neighborhoods and spent time explaining the need to move the elephants to a more favorable environment. They supported his decision. The zoo stewards its programs with and on behalf of the community. It was important to Ron to model a zoo that was not just about selling tickets but about putting animals first, and taking care of each other.
The third piece of the zoo’s vision is biophilia, a hypothesis put forward by Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” Given that his zoo has 1.5 million visitors, 2/3rds from the local region, Ron’s intention is to make the zoo itself a very important humanizing experience – in this case, through a portal of caring for animals.
I have spent the last 20 years of my career focused on the well-being of children and families and looked at zoos as an important enrichment experience. Now I understand that it is an equally important experience for the community and for the animals themselves. We are part of the natural world and when we engage ethically with it, everyone is better off.
Looking at the human dimension, it is clear that we are struggling to be in relationship with each other in ways that start from our ethical treatment of each other. The Detroit zoo provides a profound public good – building muscle around its healing work with the community. This kind of community muscle building could be modeled in our larger society.
What’s really going on at the zoo can heal the world.