Social Animals: Behind The Community-Building Culture Of The National Zoo

The National Zoo uses social media to share the joyous and tragic circle of life with fans.

Among the more emotionally wrenching social media stories in the United States last month played out on the National Zoo’s Twitter feed. On September 17, the zoo tweeted with its #cubwatch hashtag that its giant panda Mei had given birth. Panda-watchers the world over had been anticipating this joyous and exceedingly rare occurrence--as @NationalZoo explained, mama bears are only fertile for a 24-hour period once a year, and Mei had been trying to conceive for half a decade. But just a few days later on September 23, the zoo announced that the little cub wasn’t long for this world: “We are brokenhearted to share that we have lost our little giant panda cub,” the zoo tweeted.

The outpouring of grief from zoo supporters through Facebook and Twitter was intense--Lindsay Renick Mayer, the National Zoo’s communication specialist, says they received thousands of messages via social media after the baby panda’s passing. But this connection also illustrates the way that the zoo is using social media effectively and creatively to fulfill its mission as an organization. Its website, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube pages are all deeply informational, but also very responsive to far-flung fans and local zoo-goers alike.

The life cycle of this little panda cub is a perfect example of the powerful way that the zoo uses social media. Pandas are the zoo’s most popular Twitter and Facebook attraction (unsurprisingly, Renick Mayer notes, “cute baby mammals tend to get the most reaction” from followers). Mei’s conception process was entirely public, and fascinating, from start to finish, and the social media staff’s six-person team collaborated to make the biology accessible.

Panda obsessives could watch the pandas 24/7 on one of two panda cams hosted on the national zoo’s website. The social media team live-tweeted Mei’s insemination, and when zookeepers thought that Mei might be pregnant, Renick Mayer and company posted Twitter photos of her first ultrasound. The baby panda’s birth was captured on the panda cam and posted to YouTube. To give a sense of how big a deal the panda birth was for the zoo’s web traffic--the panda cam typically gets around 30,000 viewers a day, but on the day the little cub was born, the cam’s traffic spiked to nearly 200,000.

Then, in a brilliant interactive move, the zoo asked its social media fans to share their best screen shots of the baby panda on the zoo’s Flickr, so fans could feel like they were part of the process. Finally, and tragically, when the baby panda died, that was recorded on the panda cam, too, and explained on the zoo’s Twitter and Facebook. Social media provided a great resource for fans who wanted information, but it also provided them with connection and a place to share their grief.

Still, to paraphrase Renick Mayer above, it’s not difficult to get people interested in the adorable (if occasionally tragic) life cycle of a fuzzy baby bear. Part of her team’s task is to get social media followers and the press interested in the less cuddly aspects of zoo life. Gorgeous photographs on the zoo’s Flickr page have been one way to get viewers to respond to reptiles and other creepy-crawlies (like the vibrant golden frogs here).

Even in the aftermath of the baby panda’s death, the zoo is keeping followers posted on mama Mei’s recovery. Her appetite is returning to normal, and she may emerge from her den soon. But in the meantime, the circle of life continues in Washington and on the zoo’s social media presence. A dama gazelle calf born in early September just made its public debut in his yard, and the zoo’s Flickr page has lots of adorable pics of the little guy to satisfy your baby animal needs.

[Base Image: Smithsonian’s National Zoo]

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