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Locals raise funds to help Zoo Atlanta

By Trina Trice

When Cary Burgess steps out of his office to work, he's reminded how life can sometimes be a zoo.

Burgess, a Jonesboro resident, and Lesley Mocek of Stockbridge are dedicating their talents, either full- or part-time, to help Zoo Atlanta with its biggest fundraiser of the year, "2003 Beastly Feast," Saturday tonight.

The money raised from "Beastly Feast" goes toward operational costs for the zoo, Burgess said.

As Senior Vice President of Operations and Guest Services, Burgess is responsible for making sure visitors to the zoo have a good time on a daily basis.

Describing a typical morning, Burgess said he gets "out in the park to make sure we're prepared to open the zoo. I assist in any area that I can."

In his 15 years at Zoo Atlanta, Burgess has witnessed many humorous and history-making events.

"Oftentimes, when we have new people move into the community (Grant Park), they'll hear noises that they thought was someone saying ?Help me'. But it's usually the peacocks mating.

"I came here to Zoo Atlanta as they were doing renovations," he said. "Willie B (a popular and now deceased male gorilla) was still, unfortunately, indoors, I happened to witness Willie B take his first steps outdoors."

Zoo Atlanta made efforts to provide more natural-looking habitats for its animals about 15 years ago, which allowed for Willie B to live out his last years in a more realistic environment, instead of in a cage.

The zoo's transformation is what excites Mocek and is one of the reasons she enjoys serving as chairwoman on the Restaurants and Kiosks Committee for "2003 Beastly Feast." Mocek works full-time as a teacher at Community Christian School in Stockbridge.

"I'm a native Atlantan," Mocek said. "I've seen the zoo since I was a little girl. But then they had the growth and redevelopment of the zoo, taking gorillas out of a cage into" a more natural habitat. "I want Atlanta to have a zoo that they can be proud of. So that people can see what gorillas would really look like in their natural habitat."

Zoo Atlanta's Beastly Feast is the biggest fundraiser in Georgia, says Burgess and Mocek.

"If we don't have fundraisers like the ?Beastly Feast', the zoo probably wouldn't survive," Mocek said. "They raise about $1 million. No one can touch that."

Due to the high volume of visiting school children – sometimes there are more than 5,000 in one day – the zoo becomes an even better place to work then Burgess says he could ever imagine.

"No matter how frustrating a day can be, I can always take two steps out of my office and see two pandas or see a group of children skipping together because they were excited to see" animals they've never seen before, Burgess said.