I read in the news last week that the Detroit Zoological Society is building the largest center in the United States devoted to penguins. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot, $21 million center will begin next March and conclude in 2015. The Detroit Zoo made this announcement at a press conference that included a 3-D film and artificial snow that fell gently onto attendees. The center will be built to resemble an iceberg and include a 310,000-gallon deep-dive tank. Eighty penguins of four different species—rockhopper, macaroni, king and gentoo—will make their homes there, among “simulated arctic blasts, rough waves and snow.”
This news sent a penguin-friendly chill through my heart.
The new penguinarium is being made possible by the largest private donation in the Detroit Zoo’s history, a $10 million chunk of change from Stephen Polk and his family, who made their money from auto-info giant R.L. Polk & Co. Mr. Polk, who is vice chairman of the zoo’s board, is free, of course, to give his money however the hell he pleases. But I would like to imagine that when he dies and stands in front of his Maker, God says to him, “Penguins? Really? In Detroit, the murder-and-mayhem capital of the entire USofA? Penguins?” And then sends him in the opposite direction forthwith.
Don’t get me wrong. I love penguins. They’re my son’s favorite animal, and as a result, our house is filled with penguins of every shape (well, every penguin shape) and size, from teeny penguin refrigerator magnets to a stuffed penguin that’s all of five feet tall. But divide $21 million by those 80 penguins, and you come up with $262,500 per penguin. And that’s a lotta chopped cod.
Detroit’s announcement came hot on the heels of word of a $6 million grant to the Philadelphia Zoo from the William Penn Foundation. That grant is earmarked for a “first-in-the-world animal trail system” that will include passageways to allow our zoo’s big cats to explore habitats beside their own. The new system, due to open this spring, was hailed by Mayor Nutter because it will provide “a unique learning experience for youth and adults.”
You know what would really provide a unique learning experience for youth in this city? Having books in their schools.
I know it’s not the fault of either zoo that donors prefer to put their money toward them than toward children’s education. I understand this isn’t necessarily money that would otherwise be spent on kids. I still find the whole situation loathsome and weird. Eighty penguins and a handful of big cats are going to have their lives made much, much nicer even as the lives of thousands of kids in both cities become worse and worse.
The William Penn Foundation grant is particularly irksome because for a while there, it looked like it was in a unique position to effect change in the city’s schools, under former president Jeremy Nowak. But then Nowak got canned, and now it’s walkways for big cats.
There’s a bridge in my hometown that’s being repaired. It’s a bridge to nowhere. It really is. There’s nothing but empty land and abandoned factories on the other side. And yet for months now, work crews have been uprooting trees and pushing dirt around and erecting barriers and diverting traffic so they can work on this bridge. Rumor has it Wawa wants the bridge repaired so it can build a new store on the bridge’s far end. There must be some reason why $73 million is being spent on this literal bridge to nowhere, right?
There are hundreds of bridges to nowhere being refurbished in Pennsylvania and around the country. There are nice new biking and hiking trails being constructed. There are dog parks and wildlife refuges being expanded, wetlands being protected, new museums being built. And all these things, while wonderful and good, say to the schoolchildren of Philadelphia: You are less important than big cats and penguins and dogs and bike rides. You mean less than they do. There is money for them. There is no money for you.