As a San Diego native, I've been a card-carrying member of the "World Famous" San Diego Zoo my whole life. The 100-acre park is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals and more than 700,000 exotic plants. The Zoological Society of San Diego is actually the largest zoological membership association in the world.
If you've visited the San Diego Zoo, you probably understand the international allure. I have to believe the zoo owes part of its success to its communications department.
Take the pandas, for example. Pandas are not easy to get a hold of. U.S. zoos must "rent" pandas from the Chinese government - they typically go for $1M a year and at least $500K more if they breed. This is not including food and shelter. All pandas remain property of China and must return eventually.
Fifteen years ago, the San Diego Zoo built a $1M panda facility only to have their import permit denied. What could have been a PR nightmare ($1M burned for nothing) was instead turned into a story of national struggle and unconditional hope.
When San Diego finally welcomed two pandas (female Bai Yun, male Shi Shi) to the zoo, it went to town with PR. The zoo played up Shi Shi's "old man" impotency and the urgency for him to mate before the "contract" expired. The birth of baby cub Hua Mei (means "China, USA") in August 1999 spurred even more public interest. At that point, the zoo made a brilliant decision and launched the "Panda Cam," a live online video feed capturing 24/7 panda activity.
The Panda Cam was an instant hit. If you watch the Panda Cam today, however, you'll notice pandas, for the most part, don't do much.
From a San Diego Union Tribune article (Dec. 15, 2001):
The debut of the Panda Cam in effect "made" the zoo's Web site, acknowledged spokesman Ted Molter.
"There were more people online than ever before, always looking for new things to see," he said.
... The fact that the pandas don't do much but eat and sleep in no way diminished their online popularity. If anything, it was a blessing from a public relations and marketing perspective, Molter conceded.
Since Panda Cam went online in September 1999, about a month after Hua Mei was born, more than 78 million people ... have visited the zoo's Web site, said Inigo Figuracion, the zoo's webmaster. Of those, more than 21 million people -- about 27 percent overall -- clicked onto the Panda Cam.
Today, while other U.S. zoos struggle to attract visitors and financially support their $1M/year pandas, the San Diego Zoo's Giant Panda Research Station is saturated with visitors. Even better, their website is now rich with social media tools, offering podcasts, zoo keeper blogs, animal videos and virtual tours of the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park.
In 1999, the San Diego Zoo earned its status as a "virtual zoo" basically overnight. In December 2001, the zoo introduced the Polar Cam for two cubs at Polar Bear Plunge.
I'd be interested to research how attendance and online traffic have fared since 2001. Also, how have the Panda and Polar Cams affected corporate and private donations made to the San Diego Zoological Society? What about sales of plush pandas and polar bear t-shirts? I'm sure revenues skyrocketed - they probably haven't tapered, either.
If you're in the San Diego area, I absolutely recommend you visit the San Diego Zoo. They're working on a new exhibit to house elephants recently rescued from Africa.
Who knows, maybe we'll have an "Elephant Cam" soon, too. Stay tuned...