Detroit Zoo names new director and CEO

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published September 28, 2021

 Hayley W. Murphy

Hayley W. Murphy


ROYAL OAK — The Detroit Zoological Society recently named its next leader after a monthslong search led by a Detroit Zoological Society committee and Koya Partners, an executive recruiting firm specializing in serving mission-driven clients.

Hayley W. Murphy will take the reins Nov. 1. A doctor of veterinary medicine, Murphy comes to the Detroit Zoo from Zoo Atlanta, where she was promoted through management positions and currently serves as deputy director.

Murphy is the first woman in the zoo’s 93-year history to be named director and CEO.

“Hayley is an incredibly successful and respected leader who is often praised for being a strong listener, investing in relationships and showing compassion in all that she does,” Board Chair Tony Earley said in a prepared statement. “Not only is she a superb zoo executive, her accomplishments as a scientist will allow the DZS to continue growing as a leading animal and environmental research institution.”

Prior to her promotion to deputy director at Zoo Atlanta, Murphy worked as the organization’s senior director of veterinary services and vice president of animal divisions.

Murphy also helped found and directs the Great Ape Heart Project, which partners with groups internationally to investigate, diagnose and treat heart disease in great apes. She serves as the national veterinary adviser for the Gorilla Species Survival Plan and the Ape Taxonomic Advisory Group.

She has worked with zoos for more than 30 years, and she serves on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums ethics board and professional development committee.

Murphy earned an associate of science from the State University of New York, and a Bachelor of Science degree and doctor of veterinary medicine from Cornell University.

She said the timing of the opening of the role was ideal, with both of her children away at college and her feeling ready for the next step. Outgoing DZS Executive Director and CEO Ron Kagan announced in January that he planned to retire this summer after 28 years.

Murphy highlighted the Detroit Zoo’s history of excellence and innovation in the areas of animal welfare, education, research, community engagement and conservation as some of the reasons why the position was attractive to her.

Murphy, who was born in England and grew up in upstate New York, spent summers in the area as a child. She played in a fife and drum corps out of the Henry Ford Museum and participated in Civil War reenactments.

She added that she and her husband, who is a small animal veterinarian, are excited to be near the Great Lakes and enjoy the full four seasons in Michigan.

“I’ve worked very hard in my career to get to this point,” Murphy said. “Women bring a different kind of strength to positions like this. We bring our intelligence and our training and empathy and emotional intelligence. I’m excited to bring an open and relaxed style to the zoo.”

She said she always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian and work with zoo animals.

Kagan, who grew up in Boston, came to the Detroit Zoo in December 1992. His last official day is Oct. 31.

“What I saw (when I first came to the zoo) more than physical attributes was this was a community that had loved and supported the zoo for decades,” he said. “That basically was the signal to see a lot of opportunity for us to continue developing. It was clear that we needed to find more resources and build the staff.”

With the support of the community behind it, Kagan said the zoo was able to build a wonderful staff, great group of volunteers, and the financial resources to do big projects, such as the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery.

“I think it just felt like it was time (to retire),” he said. “I obviously adore this place and that hasn’t changed, and I’m sure it won’t, but I just felt it was time for new leadership here, and I didn’t want to leave in the middle of the pandemic, obviously, although it does seem to be dragging on.”

He said he plans to “keep an open mind” as far as his post-retirement plans. He will continue to lead an international team that is revising the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ code of ethics. He plans to give guest lectures at universities, as well as continue providing advice to the DZS.

“My family all moved west, and I’m going to follow them. I’ll be moving to the San Francisco area,” he said.

During Kagan’s tenure, the zoo’s education division grew from two to more than 20 professionals, implementing conservation programs on every continent and advocating for diversity. Visitation doubled and membership tripled, according to a press release.

Kagan led the development of the Arctic Ring of Life, Ford Education Center, National Amphibian Conservation Center, Cotton Family World Wilderness, Mardigian River Otter Habitat, Polk Penguin Conservation Center, Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest, Australian Outback Adventure, Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex and Devereaux Tiger Forest, according to the release.

He also oversaw new attractions, including the Wildlife Carousel, 4D Theater, Wild Adventure Simulator, Science on a Sphere, Buddy’s Pizza and American Coney Island, as well as signature events such as Wild Lights, Dinosauria and Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo.

The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Road, west of Woodward Avenue.

For more information, visit or call (248) 541-5717.