No matter where you were on the morning of Sept. 17, there was no ignoring the National Zoo’s announcement that its giant panda, Mei Xiang, had given birth to a cub. Television cameras rushed over, and newspapers and blogs swooned with rapture that the zoo would once again be home to a cute, cuddly baby panda.
Panda fever, it turned out, was incurable. It shouldn’t be. Sure, the dual-chrome ursines are as photogenic as any megafauna, but they’re also a time- and money-suck. Just ask the people who tend to the pandas.
The birth was heralded as a great victory for single-species conservation, but the zoo’s panda staffers knew the score. Tian Tian, the cub’s father, was described last summer in the Post as a “clueless breeder with flawed technique.” Mei Xiang’s pregnancy wasn’t even conceived in the raw; she got knocked up with “vintage sperm” thanks to an artificial insemination procedure zoo staffers pornographically live-tweeted.
Still, the emergence of a baby bear the size of a stick of butter gave renewed agency to animal lovers who prefer committing resources to saving individual specimens that make for good plush toys instead of, say, preserving entire ecosystems to give a chance to nature writ large. The bears are expensive to keep around: China, which owns all giant pandas everywhere, loans out Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for half a million dollars a year. The zoo spends another $200,000 to $400,000 on trying to get these rent-a-bears to reproduce. And what does it get for the efforts? A couple of lazy fatasses who sleep all day, hide from the tourists, and refuse to fuck. People will pay for it anyway: Carlyle Group co-founder David M. Rubenstein donated $4.5 million to the zoo for panda-breeding efforts last December; the Ford Motor Co. kicked in another $400,000 this year.
So the baby panda enchanted the world for nearly a week, with the zoo sending out updates about how the cub’s squeaks and squeals showed its health. But they spoke too soon: When Mei Xiang woke up on Sept. 23, her baby was dead. It was an international tragedy, the zoo’s director called it “devastating,” people fretted about Mei Xiang’s emotional wellbeing. Yeah, it was a bummer, but if the cub had survived, the panda bill from China could have jumped up. Dead pandas equal budget austerity.
There’s an out clause in the whole racket, though: One contingency in the zoo’s panda lease is that if the resident bears are incapable of making more, China can swap one or both specimens. Of course, the thought that this might be done triggered a petition from humans who can’t handle the possible separation. The hysteria never ends. When the zoo discusses the pandas’ future with its Chinese counterparts early next year, it should consider getting out of the game for good. Pandas as a species may be almost done for, but we humans can still preserve our mental health.