FIRST OF ALL, we congratulate all of those enterprising Washingtonians who managed on Monday to obtain timed-entry tickets to see Tai Shan, the new panda cub, at the National Zoo. We also want to extend our commiserations to those who failed even to open up the zoo's Web site. More than 13,000 tickets disappeared from the site in two hours, leaving many disappointed. But the zoo is promising that more will be soon available (and it has issued a chilling warning as well: Even if you do eventually get tickets, remember that he might be under a bush, or asleep, during your allotted 10 minutes).
We admit, however, to feeling ambivalent about the people who obtained the free tickets and then turned around and offered them (at starting prices of nearly $100 for one and $500 for six) on eBay. We do understand why this seems like heartless commercial exploitation of the zoo's gift to panda lovers. Certainly zoo officials are within their rights to say that they will ask visitors for identification in order to weed out tickets purchased in secondary markets.
On the other hand, it's clear that baby panda tickets do have some value, and it's actually rather surprising that the zoo itself hasn't exploited it. Certainly the zoo normally has no qualms about commercialism: The arrival of Tai Shan's parents, who are on loan from China, inspired Fuji Photo Film USA Inc. to donate $7.8 million for the "Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat," where the baby panda now lives. The zoo also hawks baby panda memorabilia and baby panda T-shirts in multiple shops. No one usually objects to this sort of thing because it's assumed that the money ultimately goes to the pandas or to the zoo's other, less photogenic animals.
Perhaps the zoo should consider extending this principle to tickets, auctioning off a few online itself, using the money for good causes, and taking the edge off the Internet rush and the illicit secondary sales. If zoo administrators can withstand the bad publicity such a sale would cause, they might make some real money. And besides, when enough people have paid real money to see Tai Shan hiding behind a rock, it's only a matter of time before the craze for panda tickets dies down altogether.