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.