Sunday, August 25, 2013

On Hating Pandas

A Slate classic:

With their lovely fur, clumsy movements, and goofy faces, they seem the embodiment of innocence, childishness, and vulnerability. This is also the public image so carefully cultivated for them by endangered-species activists. But behind the pretty face lurks, well, a bore. If we're going to anthropomorphize pandas, let's be realistic about it. The idea that pandas are sweet and genial is ridiculous. Pandas are not ill-natured. They are worse: They are no-natured. Drearier animals you cannot imagine. They are highly anti-social, detesting interaction with other pandas and people. In all my treks to the pandas' cell and yard, I never once saw them be playful or affectionate or active or even violent. Compared to almost any other animal in the zoo—apes, big cats, seals, prairie dogs, snakes—the pandas were a drag. They led a life of unparalleled tedium. Pandas are Mother Nature's couch potatoes. They are staggeringly lazy, so slothful they avoid climbing trees because it's too tiring. Their entire lives are spent eating bamboo and sleeping. (Not that there is anything wrong with eating and sleeping—I would like to spend my own life that way—just don't call it endearing.)

But Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were not simply dull. They were also unpleasant. Confinement depresses zoo animals, and the pandas were no exception, behaving more like kooks than teddy bears. Ling-Ling, unprovoked, assaulted one of her keepers and gnawed on his ankle. The animals' decadelong attempt to mate was played as comic opera, but it was much darker. At first Hsing-Hsing failed to inseminate Ling-Ling because he tried to mate with her ear and her arm. (He may have been inept because he never learned about mating in the wild.) Then the zoo imported a male panda from London Zoo to mate with Ling-Ling. He mauled her instead. (So much for panda comity.) Eventually Hsing-Hsing got it right, and between 1983 and 1989, Ling-Ling bore five of his cubs. All of them died within days. One cub perished after Ling-Ling sat on it. Another seems to have been killed by a urinary tract infection acquired from Ling-Ling. Keepers believe Ling-Ling infected herself by sticking bamboo and carrots up her urinary tract, surely neurotic behavior.