Royal Oak — Eighteen employees of the Detroit Zoo are on a privately funded cruise to Antarctica this week after not enough major donors were able to fill the available slots.

The zoo is paying the approximately $36,000 combined airfare for the staffers, including zoo CEO Ron Kagan, to get from Detroit to Punta Arenas, Chile. They are joining 35 major donors on the voyage.

Six zoo employees originally were scheduled to go.

Staffers on the trip include the zoo’s chief operating officer, chief development officer, chief financial officer, two veterinarians, a curator, researcher, educational staff and others who are experts in researching and caring for penguins.

The trip, which began Monday, comes as the zoo is completing work on the $29.5 million Polk Penguin Conservation Center, which is scheduled to open in April.

The major donors are paying for most of the trip, sponsored by the Detroit Zoological Society, that begins at King George Island near the Antarctic Circle. The voyage includes roughly a dozen stops along the Antarctic Peninsula to see wildlife such as penguins, whales and seals among the continent’s fjords and icebergs. “We had a few donors and board members who dropped out which freed up some cabins that would otherwise go empty so we are taking a few extra of our people on the trip than we originally planned,” Kagan said before departing on the trip.

Donors are paying the cost to lease the Ocean Nova boat, which can carry 68 passengers and 35 crew. The zoo paid the airfare, spokeswoman Patricia Janeway said.

Rates on the Ocean Nova are $21,995 for a single occupancy cabin, $15,595 each for double occupancy and $13,595 for triple.

The staffers’ airfare will come from zoo coffers, which are partially funded by an annual millage levied on Metro Detroit taxpayers.

A 10-year, 0.1-mill tax for zoo operations was approved in 2008 by voters in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. It provides about 30 percent of the zoo’s $34 million operating budget with about 13 percent of the millage dollars coming from Oakland County, 11 percent from Wayne County and 6 percent from Macomb County.

Jeff Hauswirth, chairman of the Oakland County Zoo Authority, which oversees money collected from county residents through the millage, said there are no restrictions other than discretionary expenditures for operations and completing the zoo’s mission in how the millage money is used.
“The zoo has found these trips to be helpful in meeting operational expenses,” he said. “The penguin center being constructed — with the help of donors — will be the premier exhibit of its kind in the entire country.”

Kagan said the zoo sponsors “at least two or three trips a year,” including to the Amazon, working to improve villages and deliver supplies; to view polar bears in northern Canada; and to East and South Africa.

Janeway said more employees than expected were given the opportunity to go on the expedition after several donors and board members either chose not to go or were late cancellations. “We would have been sailing with some empty cabins,” she said.

The object of the trip is two-fold, Kagan said. Travelers get to experience the wonder and beauty of Antarctica first-hand, and zoo officials hope to raise money for exhibits. “Donor cultivation trips are pretty common at zoos,” he said. “This one might be a bit larger than some, but we felt there was sufficient interest to justify leasing a boat.”

Kagan said it’s still to be determined how much the zoo will raise as a result of the trip. “Last year we had $3 million in donations stemming from such a trip,” he said. “The year before, $10 million. We feel it is important to do this and have realized sizable donations from the trip.”


Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said “educational trips for donors and others are not out of line, but are a common and very accepted, justifiable practice that many facilities use to get support for their programs and efforts.” The association has 230 members across North America.

Kagan said those on the trip will meet with researchers such as a veterinarian who has been doing research around the country on captive penguin health; the director of animal welfare, who is an expert on penguin welfare; a bird department supervisor with 30 years of experience working with penguins; and world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, who also serves as a design consultant on the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

The Ocean Nova will also stop at the U.S. Palmer Research Station to pick up a bird department staff member who is living at the research station for three months. “We have filled this (trip) a couple times before but some people had to drop out this year,” said Lloyd Semple, retired dean of University of Detroit Mercy School of Law who became the zoo’s board chairman last June. Semple said he was not able to sail this year due to health issues, but he called it “a trip of a lifetime.”

Semple said the zoo is only going to get better as a result of trips like the Antarctica expedition. “We are in the process of building a $30 million penguin center and its going to be the most spectacular exhibit of its type anywhere and a major, major attraction for the zoo and the city,” Semple said.