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At a point when the Detroit Zoo is emphasizing what it does outside its 125 acres, it has won a significant award for something very much within its boundaries.

The $31 million Polk Penguin Conservation Center, which opened in April 2016, received the 2017 Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) at the organization’s annual conference last week in Indianapolis.

The designation is “the highest honor in exhibit design,” said AZA president and CEO Dan Ashe, and recognized the zoo’s “dedication and expertise in designing a novel, immersive habitat that provides the best in animal care and welfare as well as a superior educational experience for visitors.”

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Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director and CEO Ron Kagan shows off the penguins' new home. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Stephen Polk of Bloomfield Hills, whose joint $10 million gift with his wife, Bobbi, jump-started the construction of the exhibit, was one of nine people honored as Detroit News Michiganians of the Year Tuesday night.

The 33,000-square-foot, 326,000-gallon enclosure houses more than 80 penguins and has already drawn more than 1 million visitors.

Meanwhile, said Detroit Zoo communications director Patricia Janeway, 16 zookeepers from around the world are scheduled to visit next month to absorb lessons from the Detroit Zoo’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

“People in our own backyard are often not aware,” she said, of the zoo’s efforts in that area as well as in wildlife conservation and environmental sustainability.

“Penguins and polar bears get people’s attention, and rightly so,” she said – but quietly and lower to the ground, the zoo has helped reintroduce a nearly extinct Tahitian land snail called Partula nodosa.

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Twenty gentoo penguins are in temporary quarantine at the Detroit Zoo. They will join other penguins at the zoo's Polk Penguin Conservation Center when it opens in early 2016.

As the early throngs of visitors packed the penguin center last year, she said, the zoo sent off a batch of 60 snails to be reintroduced in the tropics, the second shipment of a creature that for a time was found nowhere on the planet except the Detroit Zoo.

“We’re trying to change the conversation,” she said. At the same time, the zoo was happy to discuss its national award.

“An incredible amount of creativity, ingenuity and research went into the development of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center’s unique design,” zoo CEO Ron Kagan said in a statement.

He said the result is “the most extraordinary conservation center for penguins in the world” – and the AZA agreed.

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