Just asking: The National Zoo’s Bill McShea on pandas


(Joshua Yospyn/For The Washington Post)
Joe Heim
Writer and editor July 25

Bill McShea, 58, is a researcher and scientist at the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. Also known as the “panda guy,” he recently gave a TED talk on the zoo’s hottest attraction.

You said in your TED talk that you’re not really enamored with pandas, and, that as animals go, you give them a solid B.

Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine. He has recently written about the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence. View Archive

I deal with a whole bunch of different animals. But as soon as you drop the words “giant panda,” it’s like a light just switches on with people. “Oh, my God, I wish I could work with that animal. You must be so happy.” And I’m no happier working with a panda than I am with a squirrel. They’re all nice to know. But the panda just lives in another league.

Do you think the pandas at the zoo are aware of their diva status?

No, I think, as with all good divas, they go through life thinking everyone has it like this. [Laughs.] That we’re all superstars.

Extensive Wikipedia research tells me that no animal eats more than a panda.

They eat somewhere around 19 hours a day. You know, they’re a bear. And a bear in the grand scheme of things is not meant to eat bamboo. So they digest almost none of it. They just have to keep it coming through to get a little bit of nutrient out of everything they eat.

These are essentially fat guys sitting on a couch all day long?

Yeah, I think that’s why people like pandas. The babies are cute as all sin, but a lot of animals have cute babies. But pandas are just that guy you’d like to invite over for a barbecue or to watch a ballgame.

Is it good that we pay so much attention to pandas?

Sure. Any attention we can get for animals we should take. We believe in the trickle-down theory of animal conservation. If you love pandas, it will filter down to the rest of the animals.

What quality do you think you have most in common with pandas?

[Laughs.] You grow to look like the animal you work with, and I think I’m heading in that direction. A little overweight, a little laid-back. I’m a panda type of guy. I try to be a good Buddhist and take life as it comes.

If you could only see one animal at the zoo, which would it be?

I would go see the naked mole rat. I like animals who you just can’t imagine what their life is like. Blind, naked, crawling around each other all day long, that’s a strange life. My job as animal conservationist is to think like that animal. What does that animal need? What does that animal worry about? And some animals, it’s hard to get inside their brain, and that would be one of them. But panda, I think I’ve got that nailed. I know what they want.

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