By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 4, 2010
Overlooking sleeping pandas at Zoo Atlanta, Dennis Kelly talked about how important conservation and biodiversity is in the world today.
“Species are going extinct at a rate that we haven’t seen since the dinosaur era. Many, many of those species are going extinct because of what humans are doing. That is really what anyone who is passionate about animals today is concerned about, the loss of biodiversity in the planet,” said Kelly, days before he stepped down as the head of Zoo Atlanta on Jan. 29.
In mid-February, Kelly starts as the director of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s 163-acre facility in Washington, D.C., and its 3,200-acre private Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va.
Before his departure, Kelly talked about how his faith and lessons learned attending Catholic school continue to influence him.
Kelly said zoo research is focused on conservation, which he said is “good stewardship of all the resources of the planet.”
“I’m convinced it is very important. If pandas go extinct, or Sumatra tigers go extinct, that’s quite a statement about our stewardship or lack of it. We are denying future generations of those animals,” he said.
And those are not just sentimental ideas, he said. Scientists can learn about disease control by studying animals since most diseases start in animals and jump to humans, he said. “To cause it to go extinct, even worse, without really understanding its value in the overall ecosystem, is irresponsible.”
He laughed at the idea of his role as a modern Noah, trying to save species from being wiped off the planet. But he said the effort to save amphibian species in Latin America borrows from the Old Testament, calling the rescue effort an “amphibian ark.”
And Zoo Atlanta is part of that effort. He said there are roughly 100 Guatemalan beaded lizards alive in the world. The zoo, located in Grant Park, has about seven of them and scientists are trying to breed them, he said.
Kelly, a 56-year-old Atlanta native, has on a Zoo Atlanta baseball cap and jacket. He wears a tie decorated with animals. He grew up at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and elementary school. His class was one of the first to go from first through eighth grade. He graduated in 1971 from the now closed St. Joseph High School, which was downtown. He and his wife, Debbie, who grew up at St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville, were high school sweethearts. They attend the Cathedral of Christ the King and are the parents of three grown children.
Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University. His career has taken him from serving as a Coca-Cola marketing executive to heading an energy company.
In addition to being a good steward of God’s creation, Kelly said his Catholic upbringing taught him that people working together could solve problems.
“These solutions are only going to come through community action. It requires a community to resolve this issue (surrounding the loss of biodiversity). You have to work with a lot of people to solve these problems,” he said.
As president of Zoo Atlanta for the past six years, Kelly enhanced the institution’s scientific and animal welfare programs and visitor experience and rebuilt its marketing, government relations and fundraising capabilities.
Kelly said his most significant contribution was rallying the community, from volunteers and zoo staff to donors. “Bringing people together and convincing them of an urgent need to protect an important asset” is what Kelly said he sees as his legacy.
At Zoo Atlanta, Kelly shaped the 25-year master plan, renegotiated a new giant panda agreement, and improved the zoo’s financial footing. He raised more than $40 million in public and private funds for Zoo Atlanta.
Kelly also encouraged important scientific and conservation work by the zoo’s staff, including collaboration with giant panda breeding and conservation measures around the world.
“I am excited about Dennis’ new position with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo,” said Brad Benton, incoming chairman of Zoo Atlanta’s board of directors. “This is a testament to the talent and expertise of one of the nation’s top zoos. He has left an indelible mark not only on Zoo Atlanta but also the city of Atlanta.”
Zoo Atlanta is undertaking a nationwide search to replace Kelly.