“Our mission is to educate people, not just entertain them,” Zoo President and CEO Raymond King told members of the Marietta Kiwanis Club on Thursday.
“We are trying to stimulate kids’ curiosity, stimulate their parents’ curiosity,” he said. “The zoo is not just about fun, it’s not just an attraction.”
Today, Zoo Atlanta is one of the foremost zoos in the world. But at the outset, it was the equivalent of a roadside attraction for folks to gawk at. It’s come a long way.
The zoo dates back to 1889, when a traveling circus-type show headed for Marietta ran out of money when it hit Atlanta. The show’s animals, which included a jaguar, hyena, black bear, raccoon, elk, gazelle, Mexican hog, lionesses, pumas, camels and snakes, were soon acquired by the city as the nucleus of a zoo. The menagerie was moved to quarters in Grant Park on the southeast side of Atlanta, which is still its home.
The collection grew again in 1935 when Coke heir Asa Candler donated his animal collection, which he had formerly kept on his property on Briarcliff Road. That acquisition netted the zoo elephants, leopards, water buffalo, elk, zebra, birds, hyena and a sea lion. Also in the collection was Candler’s tiger, which he had named “Jimmy Walker” after the controversial New York City mayor of that name.
The zoo got its first facelift in the 1950s. And it got one of its biggest and best-loved attractions ever in 1961 — a baby gorilla that was affectionately named “Willie B” after popular former Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield.
But things took a bad turn at the zoo in the late 1960s and into the ‘70s, when its facilities came to be seen as badly deteriorating and outmoded. In fact, Parade magazine labeled it as one of the Ten Worst zoos in the country. It lost its accreditation soon after.
Mayor Andy Young led a complete reorganization of the facility, brought in new leadership and launched a redevelopment. The Flamingo Plaza, the Wildlife Theater and the Ford African Rain Forest all opened in the 1980s. The latter meant that Willie B, then in his 30s, could venture outdoors for the first time since his infancy. With the help of his mage Kudzoo, Willie B went on to sire four offspring — Olympia, Sukari, Kidogo and Lulu.
The turnaround at the zoo was soon complete, and it began winning national awards. Even better, it obtained its first giant pandas in 1999, named Lun Lun and Yang Yang.
“Our job is to advertise these rare species to the public,” King said. “There are more species under threat of extinction than ever before. The animals in our zoo are ambassadors for their species.”
Zoo Atlanta has a number of Sumatran tigers, which are critically endangered. There are only an estimated 300 of them world wide, he said.
It also has a few black rhinoceroses, which are equally threatened because of demand for their horns, believed by some cultures to be an aphrodisiac.
Part of the zoo’s job, and those of its counterparts around the world, is to maintain a nucleus of specimens of such threatened species so that at least a few of them will survive if they disappear entirely in the wild.
Zoo Atlanta is also home to the world’s largest collection of great apes, such as gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. The zoo doesn’t just display such animals, but helps research them, too. It has nine Ph.D.s on staff and is part of The Great Ape Heart Project, a multi-institutional effort that is seeking to understand, diagnose and treat cardiac disease in such animals. Zoo Atlanta is home of the nation’s largest collection of western lowland gorillas and has more orangutans than any other zoo in this country.
The leading cause of death for such animals in zoos is cardiovascular disease, and unlike their human counterparts, they don’t develop it from eating too many chips and smoking cigarettes.
“This is a project that will benefit all great apes living in zoos,” King said.
But Zoo Atlanta isn’t just all apes. It also boasts one of the largest snake collections in the country, although only about half of them are on display.
The zoo is planning to build a new amphibian and reptile house. The present one has stood unchanged for a half-century and is the last brick-and-mortar link to the “old” zoo that many Atlantans grew up with. The replacement will cost about $20 million to build, and will also show the museum has put its financial problems behind it.
Unlike all but four of its counterparts in this country, Zoo Atlanta receives no direct government subsidy, which is both good news and bad news. The City of Atlanta owns the zoo and leases it to the zoo corporation, and issued a $20 million bond in 2007 to help support it. But the zoo gets no yearly revenue stream from the city, depending instead on gifts from the public and admissions.
The zoo is open 363 days a year (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Admission cost is $21 for adults, $16 for children ages 3-11 and free for those under 2. The rate for seniors is $17. Parking is free at the zoo, which is next to the famed Atlanta Cyclorama.
The zoo also provides free passes for families of four that can be picked up at every public library in the state, although the numbers limited.
For more on the zoo, go to www.zooatlanta.org.
As King reminded, Zoo Atlanta is something not just to crow about, but to ROAR about!
Bill Kinney is associate editor of The Marietta Daily Journal.