No Misnamed Panda Could Be The Cat's Meow

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

First of all, the spelling should be Ty Shawn, not Tai Shan.

I know a young man named Ty Shawn, sells DVDs from the trunk of his car, and he agrees with me on this. Tai is a girl's name. You don't name a male panda Tai Shan -- even if does mean "peaceful mountain."

Chinese-American relations notwithstanding, a better name would have been "Butterstick." That's what a spokesman at the National Zoo said the cub looked like at birth 102 days ago.

Butterstick was a big hit from the start. But it did not make the list of five choices approved by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Bloggers launched a spirited write-in campaign, but here we are with Tai Shan (pronounced "tie SHAHN.")

What gets me more than the name, however, is the way the panda cub has upstaged the zoo's much cuter cheetahs. There are four from a litter in November last year, the first born at the zoo in its 116 years, and five from a second litter that arrived in April. A naming contest was held in March -- but only for two from the first litter: Askari and Imara, both Swahili names. The others had to settle for "pet" names made up by zookeepers. But what's special about that? At the zoo, even a mole rat can have a pet name.

You'd think the marketing guys for Cheetos would be on this like cheese flavor on a doodle. Truth is, their mascot, Chester Cheetah, is an embarrassment and badly in need of a makeover. Chester, created in 1986, is supposed to be one cool cat, sporting a white goatee, sunglasses and high-top sneakers. But he looks like an aging playboy, with a cheesy grin and, worse, a gut. Tony the Tiger would kick his behind.

Go to the Web site http://www.nationalzoo.si.edu and click on the cheetah cam for the real deal. This is no batch of alley cats. They deserve a nationwide name search, too. And their breeding program could use more help, like the panda program gets.

"The cheetah cubs are outrageously cute, a real treat to watch," said Peper Long, a zoo spokeswoman, whose office looks out onto the cheetah grounds. "And their physiology, a real sleek build."

The Friends of the National Zoo, or FONZ, hosted the contest for the two cheetahs, which got about 13,000 votes, and then everybody moved on to the next new furry thing.

"It's kind of embarrassing that we didn't give names to all of the cheetahs, we being the FONZ," said Matt Olear, media relations manager for the organization. But do you think he's really embarrassed, with FONZ having just pulled off an astounding public relations feat -- a panda-naming contest that drew 202,000 votes worldwide and helped bring sorely needed positive publicity to the National Zoo?

Listen to John Gibbons, a zoo spokesman, in an interview Monday on CNN. Asked how many visitors he expected for the panda cub debut, in December at the earliest, he said: "Well, I'll tell you, about a year ago in November the National Zoo had its first litter of cheetah cubs born. And when we had them debut, the very first day, we had over about 2,500 people file through just for them. And I don't mean to make it a popularity contest, but they were nowhere near as popular before their debut as this panda cub."

CNN: "Big moneymaker for the zoo, that little sleeping panda."

Long tried not to play favorites when explaining why the panda creates such a stir, but clearly the bear bug had bit her, too.

"I think it's because pandas are so charismatic," she said. "You see cheetahs in other zoos, and you see bears, which are familiar. But not the black-and-white pandas that crunch on bamboo and have little ears sticking out on the top of their heads. When you go down to the Panda House, you just stare at them, like you expect someone to suddenly unzip the panda suit and walk out with balloons."

Please. That's nothing compared with the ultimate cat, fastest animal on Earth, able to go from zero to 60 before you can say, "Good night, gazelle." The Chinese name for giant panda is xiongmao , which means "giant cat bear."

A cat?

Dream on, panda baby.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com


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