Pandas come in two varieties, giant and lesser. (Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the National Zoo's two most famous residents, are giant pandas.)
Panda watchers, the people who make sure that everyone knows when and if there is a third panda at the zoo, also come in two varieties, veteran and neophyte. Nancy Schneck is a veteran, having watched a possibly pregnant Ling-Ling for many years. "I feel like I know her better than I know my own husband," she said. I was a neophyte.
But today we are all veterans. Today the cameras are being turned off, the microphones silenced, the monitoring equipment dismantled. After more than 1,250 consecutive hours, Washington's most elaborate surveillance setup since Abscam is being called to a halt.
At a press conference a week ago last Friday, zoo officials declared that there was little hope left that Ling-Ling would produce the most publicly anticipated offspring since Prince William. Some pregnant-looking activity on Ling-Ling's part extended the watch a week after it was to end, but today, barring such unexpected complications as an actual birth, the great panda watch of 1982 will come to an end.
In its wake, the watch of the seemingly barren Ling-Ling is leaving a lot of disappointed zoo officials, researchers and keepers. That Chia-Chia, the London Zoo panda who "donated" sperm for Ling-Ling's artificial insemination last spring, successfully fathered twin cubs, which were born last weekend in Madrid, has only increased the frustration. Among the most disappointed of all, however, is a cadre of some 100 volunteers from the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ). These panda watchers, 24 hours a day from July 13 until this morning, monitored, clipboards in hand, the five different cameras in Ling-Ling's lair, recording her every action. In three-hour shifts they watched, waited and wrote, fighting fatigue and boredom, hoping that this time there would be a birth, but, please, not on their shift. Four of those shifts were mine.
There are those who still think Ling-Ling will fool us all; who know her contrary nature and are convinced that the moment the last bit of monitoring equipment is removed from its temporary home in the kitchen of the panda house, she will quietly go into her den and have her baby in peace, and the first real privacy she's known since the watch began.
The panda watchers give poor Ling no privacy at all. One watcher sees her every move with dozens more on call. Dear Ling, if you knew what we do, no doubt you'd find it sordid; You can't even relieve yourself without it being recorded.
From "The Panda Watcher's Lament," by FONZ volunteer Sally Galbraith
"In order that you have no distractions, we ask that you do not bring guests, alcoholic beverages, radios or TVs, or sleep or read," instructed the sheet handed out at the panda watcher training/briefing session one Saturday in early July. The logistics of this operation would have sufficed for the invasion of a small country. Getting into and out of the park in the middle of the night; figuring out how to park on summer weekend days when traffic into and out of the zoo is at a standstill; scheduling watchers, backup watchers and emergency watchers; and, above all, security.
"You will be locked in the panda kitchen ," the logistics sheet warned. "There will be an access list posted. No one is to be allowed into the kitchen unless his name is on this list."
A long, narrow, and frequently hot room adjacent to Hsing-Hsing's enclosure, the panda kitchen looked frighteningly like the control room of a television studio. Which, in fact, it was. In truth, the term panda watchers was a misnomer. We were really TV monitor watchers -- no watcher saw Ling-Ling except on video for the duration of the watch. The five cameras (four black-and-white, one color) and microphones were placed so that every square inch of her enclosure could be observed, and there were 10 TV monitors, three videotape recorders, six switching banks and a sound unit.
I discovered later I was not alone in my initial terror of the sophisticated equipment. "I had horrible nightmares that she'd have the baby and I wouldn't know what button to push," admitted watcher Sally Galbraith. "Then no one would get to see the birth and it would be all my fault."
If something happened, we were supposed to call one of three numbers posted on the wall. The trick was figuring out when something was happening. Every watch, it seemed, there was a different type of behavior we were to look for -- scratching, licking, eating, not eating.
You can't blame zoo officials for their up-and-down reports on the panda-who-would-be-pregnant. The data on giant panda pregnancies is pretty sparse. And the false alarms continued up to as late as a week ago Saturday, when I made The Call (because of prolonged licking), only to be told not to worry about it.
But aside from such rare moments of hope, the watches were characterized mostly by boredom. Panning one of the cameras around the cage to watch the mice finish the rice in Ling-Ling's supper dish served as a pleasant diversion my first shift -- until I began to wonder if the mice in her enclosure might try to join me in mine. (Zoo officials explain that rodents and insects are difficult to control because pesticides are more dangerous to the animals than the pests are.)
Each watcher found his or her own way to fight the boredom. Poetry, scrawled in the back of the panda watcher's daily instruction log, worked for some. Others tried sketching, and by last Saturday several pencil views of a sleeping panda hung from the wall between the lists of emergency phone numbers and an old cartoon of Hsing-Hsing. Still others developed their manual skills. One anonymous watcher boasted that he/she had perfected his/her eye-hand coordination while training for the National Fly Demolition Derby.
Of course, they tell us now, it really wasn't all for naught. The data we collected during those tedious and sometimes panicky hours will be of great value the next time around.
"Dear Ling we hope you would forgive the prying that we do. We only do it 'cause we'd love a dozen more like you. For watchers are a nutty bunch, but faithful, brave, and strong. For you we endure floods and flies and bugs three inches long. Perhaps we now should give it up and let you get some rest. But hope still springs eternal in each panda watcher's breast.
From "The Panda Watcher's Lament"