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Short on funds, Zoo Atlanta pandas still likely to stay

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Xi Lan: Y'all can press your faces against the glass all you want, I'm not going anywhere. AJC file photo

About $240,000 short of the fund-raising goal in the panda-promoting Give So They Stay campaign, Zoo Atlanta president and CEO Dennis Kelly said it’s unlikely that the zoo’s famous pandas are going anywhere.

The Zoo is making one last push with a fund-raising membership offer of $99 for two adults and up to four children, who don’t have to live in the same household.

From a story reported by AJCer Howard Pousner:

“We think it will add significantly to our total,” Kelly said. “It probably won’t put us over the top, but I think we’re close enough that the board has confidence in us and that we’ll go ahead and … declare victory and keep the pandas.”

In truth, the deck was stacked strongly in the pandas’ favor from the start. Seeking to raise $2.5 million to extend the animals’ stay five years, a deal similar to one that San Diego Zoo had just inked with the Chinese government, Atlanta officials had already identified $2 million when it launched the public Give So They Stay campaign.

I’m of a few minds about this.

  • This was an important transition for the Zoo. The pandas continue to be a big draw and a visitor favorite, but it would be impossible for the Zoo to maintain the momentum they had when they arrived, when Mei Lan was born, or even when the second cub, Xi Lan, was born last year. The fund-raiser gave them a vehicle for putting the pandas out front without repeating the same old (albeit adorable) message — “Look! Pandas!”
  • Overall, this is good news. Keeping the pandas here is great for Zoo Atlanta, good for animal-loving visitors and residents and great for research on Giant Pandas. It’s also crazy-expensive, and it’s important for us to know that. It’s essential for cultural institutions to be clear on what it costs for them to stay alive. If cost and value aren’t made obvious, there’s big trouble. (Said the woman typing from inside the newspaper office. Oy.) This campaign asked people to put their money where their mouths are, and often in incentive-rich ways, like partying at SweetWater, eating ice cream or now, getting a sweet deal on Zoo membership.
  • I hope not to see a situation like this again. There are a lot of cultural institutions and arts organizations that are struggling right now and few have $2 million banked already,  like Zoo Atlanta had for the pandas. A recession is a poor time to introduce a $500,000 fund-raising campaign with a name that implied the community might lose something special if, in fact, there was no way that was going to happen. There’s no way to say that money raised for pandas would have gone to any of the other groups around town, but in this case, it definitely didn’t. I do hope the major institutions in the city are looking out for each other and especially for smaller organizations without the marketing and star power of fuzzy animals.

Regardless, I’m glad the pandas will stick around. (Mei Lan, the first cub born in Atlanta, is scheduled to go back to China next year, much like the National Zoo’s cub Tai Shan.) They’re a delight to watch, and a troubled population that Zoo Atlanta has helped. I just hope the rest of the places we go to have fun in Atlanta will emerge so well from this rough period, too.

What do you think? Share in the comments!

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3 comments Add your comment

Jamie Gumbrecht

December 5th, 2009
3:46 pm

Me, too, KSEE! I have a particular fondness for the naked mole rats and the parakeets. :)

KSEE

December 5th, 2009
11:24 am

I want to go to the zoo! I love Zoo Atlanta

Elliot Garcia

December 5th, 2009
10:39 am

I support Zoo Atlanta and appreciate their efforts.