John Kelly's Washington

If Tian Tian the giant panda had thoughts about fatherhood

Tian Tian and his primary obsession.
Tian Tian and his primary obsession. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tian Tian sat in his enclosure at the National Zoo, sucking on the tip of a bamboo-handled calligraphy brush. Lost in thought, the giant panda tapped the paintbrush absent-mindedly against his teeth, then dipped its bristles in a pot of ink and started writing. His right paw made tentative strokes on a wrinkled sheet of paper.

Son, he began. I know I haven't always been there for you.


It looked odd to see it there, set out so starkly in black and white. The truth was, "son" was a concept that had been unfamiliar to Tian Tian, as it is to all giant pandas, who in the wild live lives of solitary foraging.

But how could he remain unaffected by his life among the humans, the only life he'd ever known? Every day, they came to him, watched him, some staring for hours as he padded about his habitat. And though they would have been surprised at the notion, he watched them, too. Bamboo remained his primary obsession -- finding it, stripping it, eating it, eating more of it -- but whenever he could, Tian Tian would observe the crowds that peered at him.

At first, the humans all looked pretty much the same to Tian Tian -- skinny, upright, mostly (and disturbingly) hairless, collectively of infinite hues but each one boringly monochromatic. Over time, however, he realized that people, like pandas, came in different sexes.

They came in different sizes, too. When they were tiny, the humans were pushed around in wheeled boxes or were strapped to chests or backs. When they got bigger, they could walk upright, barely. Careening at first, their heads seemingly too big for their bodies, they would sometimes take a fall, tumbling on the asphalt walk that encircled the pandas' enclosure. A red liquid would blossom from a knee or elbow. And then a big human would swoop in, pick up the child and smother it with kisses, sometimes showing what Tian Tian recognized as mock concern, sometimes showing genuine worry, but always with a consoling demeanor that said, "All children are special, but this child is extra special to me."

As skillfully as any clipboard-toting field biologist, Tian Tian pieced together relationships among the various pods of humans. Over the years, he even came to recognize certain individuals, humans who returned to the zoo again and again: the male with the oddly shaped ear, the female with the shrill voice, the wizened matriarch to whom others showed deference. And always there were the crowds of exuberant children, grown larger each time Tian Tian saw them.

He was fascinated by their interactions and started calling them by the names they called themselves: Son. Daughter. Mother. Father.

How could this not affect Tian Tian? How could it not make him question his own instincts? But the knowledge, he feared, had come too late. On this very day, Tai Shan, the child who was special to him, would be packed in a crate, put on a plane and sent to China -- gone from his life forever.

From the other side of a fence, Tian Tian could hear a gentle snuffling. It was Mei Xiang. Even after 10 years together, his mate was inscrutable to him. Theirs was that oldest of Chinese customs: an arranged marriage. But from the sound of her weeping, Tian Tian knew that Mei Xiang must have watched the humans, too, must have felt as he did, must be missing her child already. He dipped his brush again.

Son, I know I haven't always been there for you. As you get older, you will realize this is the giant panda way. We live alone. We die alone. But even so, never forget where you were born: Washington, D.C. And never forget that while there may be no word in our language for what you leave behind, there is a human word. Me, your mother, the countless humans who have watched you since the day you were born -- we're all part of something that can be carried in your heart wherever you may go: We are your family.

Tian Tian folded the note. His spirits lifted at the thought that spring was coming and with it, perhaps, another chance.

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