If you’re a panda fan—please, think carefully before you claim this title (for an accurate example of ‘panda fan’, look at these images of Jackie Chan with pandas)—and even if you’re not, the panda news this week was surprisingly good, and weird.
After approximately zillions of years on the endangered species list and a tenure of equal length as icon of the World Wildlife Fund, the panda has been given a reduced sentence, and therefore inadvertently performed a feat of emotional cleansing for the entire world.
In a statement released Sunday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (they make the famous “you’re doomed” lists) announced that the iconic giant panda’s status had changed from “Endangered” to simply “Vulnerable”.
There are several curious things about the way we responded to this news, including ignoring the actual headline, which was that The Eastern Gorilla is now Critically Endangered (because people shoot it), which means the majority of non-human great ape species are under considerable threat of extinction. We also ignored a weird rodent creature, the Stick-nest Rat, and the Bay Duiker, a deer-ish thing that looks like it has two faces. From this point on, I am also going to ignore the majority of the IUCN’s statement.
But all that’s to be expected; we like big majestic creatures, beautiful things, and/or things that seem like they might be cuddly, even if they’re still actually wild-ish animals.
The really curious thing is the way everyone talks about pandas, starting with the word vulnerable. This particular designation of a species’ likelihood of survival—chosen by the IUCN—is incredibly therapist-y and TED-talky; it’s like Mr. Panda went to the Upper East Side and begged for a lower dosage.
I’ve been doing better, Todd, I really have. Things with Amanda were so tough these past few years, but we figured a lot of things out, and we really think it was the captivity issue and not any lack of interest, seriously, and now we both believe that. I truly believe we’re meant for each other. And mentally I’m not in any danger, you know? I just feel vulnerable.
Of course, Todd agrees.
With pandas, the emotional struggle is amplified because everyone’s really worried about their ability to have sex. (Side thought: in the crazy world of animals, being bad at sex is one thing; screw-shaped penises and sea-water accidents make things tough. But can animals hate sex?)
Good news: pandas are neither bad at sex, nor do they dislike it, and the chair of IUCN’s Giant Panda expert team, Dr. Ronald Swaisgood, wants people to stop worrying (stress is bad for sex, duh). “If there is one myth I can dispel about pandas,” he told the Independent, “it is that they are poor breeders. True, it was difficult to figure out how to get them to ‘do what comes naturally’ in the early days of the breeding program, but with new research and scientific knowledge, we have discovered that they breed quite well.”
In other words, pandas are animals that have sex because they’re animals. And yes, they know how to do it, and they’ve been fine doing it long before the Dr. Swaisgood’s got their artificial inseminators involved. People are just worried about their own sex lives and projecting this worry on the totally normal panda bear, according to Todd the official panda-bear therapist.
Especially funny panda verbiage was thrown around at The Atlantic, where they’re confident about the panda’s ability to bang, and also emphasize the panda’s bouncy qualities. The article is titled ‘Pandas Bounce Back In Spite of Their Critics’, which I think was a title recently used for Britney Spears, as if pandas were just working through some complex identity/addiction issues and maybe trying to gain control of their own bank accounts, finally.
“Give them space and safety, and they’ll bounce back,” says the article. Again, some weird relationship dynamics. Do we need to give pandas some space? Like from our undying love? Did they just need a break from the spotlight to get their shit together? Thank god they didn’t overdose while we weren’t looking. Welcome back, pandas.
Over at the BBC there was incredible focus on how cuddly pandas are. This subheading appeared in their recent pandas-are-now-vulnerable coverage: “They’re cute, they’re cuddly and they’ve just been brought back from the brink of extinction.”
This is a bear! It is not cuddly. It is a bear! With claws!
It’s definitely cute though. Can’t argue that. Image issues? Not these cubs. Not until later in life, maybe, when their plummeting babe quotient causes latent insecurity issues to surface. (It’s a thing. I don’t have a link, but just trust me.)
Before all this recent panda news, Jon Mooallem published Wild Ones, which is a fantastic book if you’re curious about why people fetishize animals, and how far we’ve come from respecting them as wild creatures. In the section on bears (polar bears, specifically), he writes about how “loaded and solemn” it is to witness these animals in the wild, and how we’ve turned the polar bear into “a psychic pack animal and heaped our shame, disquiet, and hope on its back.”
Same with the panda bear. And that, my friends, is why the sex-loving, bouncy, cuddly panda will be paying for years and years of therapy—thanks to you. But are we happy there’s more bamboo in China and therefore more pandas? For sure. We feel great about that.