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The Wilds of Washington

When Robert J. Lamb, MBA ’77, was in his twenties, he had a degree in philosophy from the University of Dayton and a master’s in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University. He was working as a management intern at the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Lamb saw GW’s MBA program as a way to reach beyond his liberal arts education and increase his career opportunities in the federal government. It did.

While Lamb attended GW, he had more to do than study and work. He had two young children at home. Lamb and his family joined Friends of the National Zoo, the Zoo’s nonprofit support organization, which enabled him to get a few perks, such as discounts in the gift shop, and the satisfaction of supporting the animal sanctuary. Lamb now is the executive director of FONZ.

Like thousands of local parents, Lamb spent many weekends at the National Zoo, which attracted worldwide attention after the arrival of the first giant pandas in the United States.

Lamb was as enthralled with the zoo as his children were: “This was a new experience for me,” he says. “Growing up in Ohio, I’d never seen giraffes, elephants, or sea lions before. It’s so special seeing, hearing, and even smelling the animals. You can’t get that from a book or a film.”

As much as he enjoyed the animals, Lamb was also in awe of the zoo itself. “I loved how every visitor—regardless of wealth, nationality, background, or age—could enjoy the same experience,” he says. “This occurs so rarely in D.C.”

Like many Washingtonians, Lamb focused on a career with the federal government. “When I applied at the Department of the Interior, the interviewer, a PhD, was impressed that I was getting an MBA from GW,” Lamb says. “I owe a lot to the University. Even then, GW attracted a cosmopolitan group of students. I found it fascinating to sit around with other students at the Marvin Center and try to figure out projects together.”

The ability to work with many different people served Lamb well for 29 years at the DOI, the nation’s principal conservation agency. The DOI manages about one-fifth of the land in the United States, including land managed by the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Most recently, Lamb served as senior adviser for management and collaborative action in the Office of the Secretary.

Lamb was recognized for his work, receiving an array of honors, including five Presidential awards and the Secretary of the Interior’s Partnership Award for Conservation through Communication, Cooperation, and Consultation.

At 62, Lamb wasn’t looking for another career. At this point in life, he expected to be retired and visiting the national wildlife refuges he spent a career protecting and enhancing.

But in October of 2005, when Lamb and his wife, Amy, were visiting the Zoo, he heard a familiar voice call his name. His friend and former colleague John Berry, newly appointed director of the National Zoo, invited Lamb for a behind-the-scenes look at “Jafari,” the Zoo’s two-year-old giraffe who had skin cancer, the first known diagnosis in a giraffe. Impressed with the dedication of the staff and volunteers who cared for Jafari (who eventually had to euthanize him), Lamb made a remark to his wife that turned out to be prescient: “I could work here.” That comment caught up with him in July when he became executive director of FONZ.

More than 40,000 households, representing about 110,000 individuals, are members of FONZ, which raises funds to support scientific research, exhibit development, the acquisition of animals, and more.
As executive director, Lamb leads a staff of about 300 employees and 1,600 volunteers. He proudly points out that it was a FONZ volunteer who first noticed when the Zoo’s giant panda Mei Xiang was in labor in the wee hours of July 9, 2005. The Zoo’s most famous resident, Tai Shan (pronounced tie-SHON), affectionately nicknamed “Butterstick” based on his size and shape at birth, is a huge draw for the National Zoo and for FONZ.

Lamb’s favorite place at the Zoo, a place which best represents its future, is currently off-limits to the general public: the Zoo’s forthcoming Asia Trail. The trail will cover nearly six acres of the Zoo’s public area with new habitats for sloth bears, clouded leopards, Japanese giant salamanders, red pandas, and other animals from Asia. It’s the most significant change at the Zoo in almost 30 years.

Visitors will be experience close encounters with animals through the Asia Trail. “They can share the same cooling rock with giant pandas, separated only by glass. In an amphitheater, an amazed audience can see sloth bears draw up ants and termites and other delectable treats through their snouts,” he says. “It will be remarkable.”

Lamb’s enthusiasm for the National Zoo and for FONZ is contagious. Just ask his Friends.

—Kathryn McKay