The power of two (pandas)

Raymond B. King is president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta.

Zoo Atlanta got a surprise on July 15. We knew Lun Lun the Giant Panda was expecting because we’d seen a cub on ultrasound, but it was the cub we hadn’t seen that gave us the revelation we shared with friends around the world. These marked my second — and third — panda births as president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, and I can say without an ounce of hyperbole that “Pandamonium” is a real phenomenon.

There’s something about this species that pulls people together — people of all ages who don’t have another thing in common. They have different likes and dislikes and differing socioeconomic backgrounds, but they share a passion for these animals. And just as these animals unite people, Zoo Atlanta has always been able to unite its community.

Every time fellow native Atlantans stop me and say, “I’m so proud of our zoo,” they’re speaking far more than a few gratuitous words. They’re actually saying, “I was here. I know.”

In the mid-1980s, when the zoo was a breath away from closing forever, our community made the difference between a legacy that could have ended in shame and disrepair and a reputation that thrives with honor and productivity today. They were led by then-Mayor Andrew Young, who created one of the best examples of a public-private partnership in Atlanta. I would say the rest is history, but we’re still making history as I speak.

I see occasions for pride each time I walk through the park. Families light up when a giraffe takes a piece of lettuce out of their hands. Little ones play in our brand-new Splash Fountain, made possible by our friends at the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority. I see employees who understand the importance of interacting with visitors to ensure that they have an unforgettable experience, and I see a healthy organization that has experienced growth of more than 30 percent in just two years.

But we’re more than just an organization, and we’re far more than just an attraction. As more and more Atlantans and Georgians find out what we’re all about, we have an opportunity to let the world know why we’re here and what we’re doing.

We’re working to save species. We’re sharing our research with collaborators around the world who can help us make a far larger impact than on our own. We’re educating Georgia students at a time when our nation needs more of a boost in science education than it ever has before.

Consider again those two tiny Giant Panda cubs. We were excited enough about the idea of one, to the point that we couldn’t even imagine the possibilities of two.

I urge our community to make a similar connection with Zoo Atlanta. Visualize the powerful things that can happen when one individual connects with others, to such great effect that it resonates around the world.

My fellow Atlantans, you have a right to be proud. This is not the zoo of your childhood. If you haven’t seen or thought of us since, I suggest you make some time to get to know Zoo Atlanta.

We’ve earned your pride, and we’ll give it back to you twofold.

Raymond B. King is president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta.