Sad, sad news. We lost another panda. The smaller, second, still-unnamed cub perished on Wednesday at the National Zoo, in spite of the best efforts of zookeepers who gave it round-the-clock care.
I can’t take any more of this. First excitement, then devastation. Rollercoasters pale to the emotional experience of watching the panda cam.
My grief has turned to rage. This has gone far enough. I lack the emotional fortitude to keep doing this.
Perhaps it is time we stopped enabling these pandas.
The case against them is compelling.
Everything that trend writers wish was true about millennials is objectively true about pandas.
They contribute nothing. They lounge around all day, eating snacks provided by their aging and beleaguered caregivers. They are stylish freeloaders who get by entirely on charisma. They dominate on social media. And they maintain — or would, if we gave them a platform — that none of it’s their fault because we made the world unlivable for them.
I am not saying I want pandas to be extinct. Of course not. I am just saying that, by all rights, they should be.
Can we agree on this much?
Pandas are the clickbait of zoo animals. They are, perhaps, keeping the fragile art of journalism alive. What’s black-and-white and read all over? A panda in the headlines. Pandas bring in revenue and excite interest, and they are not going anywhere any time soon, but — they’re a fillip.
They’re almonds. They are avocados. They are any of those myriad luxuries that take infinite effort — and for what, exactly?
I am not saying we should say “Enough is enough!” but — we would be within our rights to do so.
I know this sounds horrible and callous, but when a panda cub died in 2012 we had to have a headline to clarify that it was NOT because the mother sat on it. (“National Zoo’s Giant Panda Was Good Mom, Did Not Crush Cub“)
“Mei Xiang was a good mom,” her keeper Suzan Murray said in 2012, “who protected her cub and did not crush her.”
This is not a high bar.
Look, if I had an extremely rare offspring after months and months of artificial insemination, and then I sat on it and brought about its demise, as one bear did in 2006, would you say, “Great, okay, I am all in for this species?”
How did these things survive in the wild?
Pandas can’t perform. They don’t understand how they’re supposed to reproduce. Here is a particularly vivid story from this “Bears Do It” article in the New Yorker, dealing with the fertility issues of the National Zoo’s Mei Xiang and her opposite number:
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are simply “reproductively incompetent.” A key difficulty is that Mei Xiang places herself in what he called “pancake position”—flat on her stomach, legs outstretched—and Tian Tian isn’t assertive enough to lift her off the ground. Rather than mounting from behind or pulling her toward his lap, he steps onto her back and stands there like a man who has just opened a large box from Ikea and has no idea what to do next.
Female pandas are receptive only once a year, and sometimes are fertile for less than a day—an unusually narrow breeding window. As spring approaches, scientists at the National Zoo monitor Mei Xiang’s behavior and hormone levels, and a Chinese consultant prepares to fly to Washington on short notice, to assist. In China and elsewhere, panda handlers have encouraged unenthusiastic pairs by showing them “panda porn”—footage of other pairs having sex—and giving the males Viagra. Some handlers have claimed success with the videos, but pandas in the wild are solitary creatures, with limited opportunities to observe the behavior of other adults, and many scientists doubt that they engage in social learning.
The National Zoo’s approach has been more mechanistic. Last year, at the suggestion of the Chinese consultant, carpenters built a low wooden platform in the enclosure that had been Mei Xiang’s preferred mating location. “We were thinking that if she would pancake at a higher level Tian Tian might be able to hit the target,” Brandie Smith, the zoo’s panda curator, told me. It didn’t work. This year, two zookeepers placed a plastic cylinder, about a foot in diameter, across the threshold of the enclosure. As Mei Xiang led Tian Tian inside, she fell over the cylinder, and her rump rose into the air—exactly as the zookeepers had hoped. But then Tian Tian lifted her off the cylinder, placed her on the ground, and stepped onto her back.
On paper, they have what it takes to survive. They are bears who eat bamboo. Grass-fed bears. They sound like something that should be sold at Whole Foods. But then human beings came along, and all those evolutionary advantages went down the drain.
Now we’re trying to atone, but we need their help. And they’re not helping.
This week, Mei Xiang decided to dedicate all her time to feeding only her larger, more vigorous cub. She refused even to let well-intentioned zookeepers substitute in the smaller cub. (Frankly, this seems like a perplexing time to decide that survival of the fittest is your dominant philosophy. “Mei Xiang,” one wanted to say to her, “you are a panda. You’re not fit. That you’ve survived at all is entirely due to your resemblance to a giant stuffed animal. Not only are you a panda, with all the reproductive unsuccess that generally entails — you’re YOU. You couldn’t even MATE properly because you didn’t pancake right. And now you’re trying to pick winners and losers?”)
And then the smaller cub didn’t make it. Mei, you had ONE job!
I want the pandas to survive and thrive. The alternative would be too mortifying, after everything we have done. But they make it hard to root for them. To all appearances, they are utterly indifferent to their own survival.
Then again, they are not the ones dressing up as members of a different species and showing them pornography. We are. One day two pandas looked at each other and shrugged. “Why bother?” they said. “They seem keen. Let’s see how ridiculous it gets.”
Who’s the bigger fool: the panda, or the zookeeper in the panda suit?
Still, I wish they seemed a little more invested in carrying on their species. On days like today, it really feels like we’re in this alone.