A love letter to Zoo Atlanta’s pandas

Giant panda Ya Lun, one of the twins at Zoo Atlanta

Photograph courtesy of Zoo Atlanta

In August 2016, my oldest daughter, Vivien, started kindergarten at Parkside Elementary School in Grant Park, just a few blocks down the street from Zoo Atlanta. The school—which opened in 2001, shortly after the arrival of the zoo’s first giant pandas, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, in 1999—adopted the iconic creature as a mascot. Since then, seven pandas have been born at the zoo, with the youngest, a pair of twins, born just a month after Vivien started school. After the arrival of cubs Ya Lun and Xi Lun, we regularly tuned into the zoo’s “panda cam” to watch the impossibly tiny pink babies as they mewled and wiggled. (My younger child, Louisa, then three, refused to believe that they were pandas, repeatedly insisting they were piglets.) That fall, I bought a family membership to the zoo, and Vivien gravitated to the panda exhibit during every visit, her forehead pressed to the glass, riveted by the animals’ lazy movements. Then executive editor of this magazine, I was certainly on board when our art department suggested we put dad Yang Yang on our December 2016 cover.

Over the past eight years, my kids have wholeheartedly embraced all things panda. Each spring they’ve walked in snaking lines from Parkside to the zoo and back again on annual field trips. They’ve acquired innumerable panda-themed socks and hoodies and field day T-shirts. They’ve hugged and high-fived the school’s mascot, Parker (a parent gamely ensconced in a plush panda costume), every August on the first day of class. And every month at Parkside’s community gatherings, they’ve joined hundreds of other small voices in the chant: “When I say panda, you say pride! Pan-da pride! Pan-da pride!”

Today, Atlanta remains the last place you can see giant pandas in the U.S., since China recalled its other black-and-white diplomats last year. And we may not hold that distinction for long. The zoo’s giant panda loan agreement expires this year, and at some (as yet undetermined) date, the four animals still residing at the zoo—Lun Lun, Yang Yang, Ya Lun, and Xi Lun—will return to their homeland. Just as the bears are getting ready to leave Atlanta, my youngest is getting ready to leave elementary school. “I can’t believe it’s our last year having a Parkside Panda!” I sobbed as my baby marched off for her final first day. This spring will be the last one that her classmates can head to the zoo in their panda gear and come face-to-face with the real deal, munching bamboo or lolling on a log. Maybe one day, it won’t even be clear why the school’s mascot is a panda. But for my kids, their elementary years will always be linked to a black-and-white piece of Atlanta history.

This article appears in our February 2024 issue.

The post A love letter to Zoo Atlanta’s pandas appeared first on Atlanta Magazine.

In August 2016, my oldest daughter, Vivien, started kindergarten at Parkside Elementary School in Grant Park, just a few blocks down the street from Zoo Atlanta. The school—which opened in 2001, shortly after the arrival of the zoo’s first giant pandas, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, in 1999—adopted the iconic creature as a mascot. Since then, seven pandas have been born at the zoo, with the youngest, a pair of twins, born just a month after Vivien started school.
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