I first saw Tai Shan, the then-National Zoo’s world famous panda, five years ago. It was a nice day and I had a Friday with time to kill, so I headed over to Woodley Park. It was time to finally try to suck in some of the magic that, to that point, I’d cynically scoffed at. For most of my life, the pandas and their followers were nothing but a necessary scourge on local society. The thinking being: if these fanatics spent as much time on their fellow humans as they did worrying about these bears, we’d all be better off.
On this particular day, Tai Shan was out roaming the enclosure. There were children galore screaming his name, shoving their faces into the glass to get a look. I was lucky enough to find a spot up front amidst this swelling summer crowd. Then that little panda walked straight toward me, the kids got louder and louder, he popped a squat and relieved himself right in front of my face. Luckily there was the glass separation, but, clearly you can see through that. There was no lunch for me that day.
I haven’t gone back to see the pandas since. Until today.
For some reason, I’m down with Bao Bao, who was born back in August. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t catch me wearing panda t-shirts or becoming a member of FONZ, but for the first time, seeing that baby panda didn’t make me want to puke from all the schmaltzy cuteness alerts. She was debuted to the media this morning at the National Zoo — I didn’t go to that event — and the photos seem appropriately adorable (seriously, click that). When she was born, I found myself genuinely rooting for her, considering that there were worries after what happened the previous year when Mei Xiang lost a cub. Of course, rooting for an animal to stay alive doesn’t make one a saint, but it was a first for me.
Interestingly enough, a couple weeks back, when asked what the panda’s name would be, I instinctively told someone that they don’t name the cub until after 100 days per Chinese tradition. At the time, I didn’t even realize that I knew that. Maybe 30 years of zoo propaganda have melted my brain. My days of panda-bashing are over.
There’s an element of this conversation that’s obviously wholly ridiculous. Only in a city like this does an animal in an enclosure create such a stir. But that’s part of the fun. A stance on pandas is apparently required in today’s polite society. If you are ambivalent to pandas in D.C., you might as well call yourself a tourist.
But I am changing sides. I’m switching from the ‘openly mocking of anyone who cares about this’ camp to the ‘I can understand why people like to look at cute animals and find some level of solace in that’ camp. Although I’m never going to understand why anyone would fly to China to clean the cage of an animal after it left town.
Monday, a few families milled about the Panda exhibit at the zoo, which was only open outdoors. “Que lindo,” one woman said as Mei Xiang walked around. She looked pretty dirty, but this woman was still awed enough to muster up a compliment. Her toddler son seemed less impressed. I’ll never know why people are so singularly magnetized to pandas but at this stage of my life, I’m not going to fight it with smug snark.
I still wish they’d named her Mulan, though.