“I think it’s hard to be a panda hater and live in Washington,” Nichole Remmert told me when I called her last week.
Fortunately for Nichole, she no longer lives in Washington. Last year, after 20 years in the District, she moved to Pittsburgh, whose residents presumably don’t breathlessly follow the fortunes of the National Zoo’s pair of overgrown raccoons, and where the local news outlets do not breathlessly report every squeal and hiccup of the new cub.
Not that there is anything wrong in my book with being panda-obsessed. As long as you’re not spending so much time on the panda cam that you’re neglecting personal hygiene, go ahead and enjoy the black-and-white bundle of joy.
But I have detected in the last few weeks a growing panda backlash, backlash from people such as Nichole, who takes to Twitter to puncture peoples’ infatuation with our Chinese visitors.
“Whenever I bravely state my dislike for the pandas on Twitter — I’m joking about the ‘brave’ part — I get a lot of favorites and occasionally a retweet,” Nichole said. “It’s like they secretly support the position, but no one wants to come out as a panda-hater. I think there are more of us out there than like to admit it.”
Are you a panda-hater? Take this simple quiz to find out:
1. You refuse to click on YouTube links that your panda-besotted friends send, links with such subject headings as “Cute Baby Pandas,” “Cute Panda Cubs Playing in the Snow” and “OMG it’s so cute! — baby panda playing soccer (aka football).”
2. You find yourself wishing for more stories in the paper about RGIII because you think it might mean fewer stories about the pandas.
3. You’re better at describing the sexual shortcomings of Tian Tian than at explaining to your partner why he or she has the wrong technique. And this bothers you.
4. You never want to hear the word “pseudopregnancy” again.
5. The walls in your bedroom are haphazardly covered with photos of pandas — torn from magazines and newspapers, downloaded from the Web, snapped surreptitiously from a distance with a telephoto lens — and in each you have gouged out the eyes.
If you answered “Yes” to two or more of these questions, you may be suffering from what I call “pandamosity.”
Why the pandamosity? The media is partially to blame, both mainstream media and social media. The Washington Post and other news outlets report endlessly on the pandas. We’re able to do so because National Zoo scientists are better able to track the reproductive health of our pandas. They can now pinpoint fluctuating hormone levels, for example. And we can tell you about it.
Of course, we do it because we think you will be interested.
As for social media, Twitter and Facebook seem tailor-made for snark, and nothing is snarkier than poking fun at a lovable ball of fluff. In fact, the animal’s fetching appearance is what motivates some panda haters. As Elahe Izadi, a D.C. journalist and comedian, puts it, we have a tendency to go crazy over pandas simply because they’re so cute and appeal to us in a way that, say, Komodo dragons don’t.
“Our unquestionable devotion to pandas represents one of humanity’s worst qualities: our vanity,” she wrote in an e-mail to me. “But don’t get me wrong, I am no monster. Cute animals are great! I like kittens and all of that. I do not, however, want to get live updates on the artificial insemination of your cat, nor will I wait in a line to see its offspring.”
If tweets and Facebook posts represent the sillier end of pandamosity, there’s another, more serious strain: people who see panda hoopla as a symbol of humans’ misplaced conservation efforts. Their argument is that we shower too many resources on saving a species that should be allowed to go extinct. (That’s the controversial stance taken by British naturalist Chris Packham that I’ve seen echoed in recent weeks.)
The folks at the National Zoo take it all in stride. They tell me the messages they’ve received since the birth of the cub are overwhelmingly ones of support. And they’re happy to address critics.
“I know this sounds corny, but the birth of a cub represents hope for the future,” said Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute and a pioneer in giant panda reproduction. “In this context, it’s hope for conservation.”
Besides the symbolic achievement, Steve sees tangible benefits in saving the panda. “The giant panda is just one element from a giant ecosystem that is being preserved,” he said. “It’s the same thing with tigers, elephants or great apes: When you save that animal, you’re saving all the habitat they require for survival, which drives benefits for lots of other species and humans. The net gain is for a lot more than just pandas.”
In other words, all you panda haterz can go suck bamboo.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.