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Washington, we need to talk about you and your pandas

The pandas at the National Zoo have everything – and nothing – to do with Washington.

The black and white giants are not native to the mid-Atlantic. These are not national icons that would naturally be displayed at the seat of government. Chubby and slow, they don’t symbolize any of the qualities a place might want to associate itself with, like the Wall Street bull or the British lion.

However, for five decades, the city has been absolutely seduced by bears. It’s a strange enthusiasm that has survived geopolitical changes, bad panda behavior and several generations of bears.

And it shows no signs of abating, even now: as news broke this week that the animals were returning to the National Zoo, with a front-page Washington Post and a video announcement from the White House, Washington started partying like it’s 1972.

It was the year the first pair of roly-poly arrived, a gift from the Chinese government during Richard Nixon’s historic trip a few months earlier. On opening weekend, 20,000 people lined up to see the adorable creatures. Soon, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were all over Washington. Their photos appeared on fare cards for the capital’s new Metrorail system. They were a staple of the mall’s tourist T-shirts.

In the local media, their dietary preferences were detailed in breathtaking detail (Hsing-Hsing loved blueberry muffins!) and their failed efforts to mate were covered as if they were a royal couple trying to produce an heir. When old Hsing-Hsing was called ill in 1999, local schoolchildren sent out enough get-well cards to cover the window of the zoo’s panda house. Upon his death, municipal mourning took place.

Until replacement pandas arrive, of course.

Never mind that the second set of bears is an expensive rental from a rival power rather than a hearty gift from a new friend. Washington loved them anyway. Some 150 panda statues were distributed across Washington as part of a civic art project launched in 2004. The zoo’s “panda camera” racked up 93 million views during a blizzard in 2016. The ultra philanthropist -Beltway connection David Rubenstein funded a new panda home. The local WNBA team debuted with a panda as its mascot.

For five decades, the city has been absolutely seduced by bears. | Jim Watson/Getty Images

So when the China Wildlife Conservation Association took over its $1 million-a-year rental bears last fall, locals turned out for a week-long farewell ceremony and zookeepers cried. It all seemed historic – a harbinger of a new Cold War, yes, but also a significant hole in the civic landscape.

And, as a result, the video released by the zoo (featuring Jill Biden) as well as Wednesday’s announcement event with the Chinese ambassador (he called the bears “our new envoys of friendship”) have seemed a bit like a repair of that rupture, or at least the civic part of it. Zoo workers had spent the previous days secretly restocking the park’s panda souvenir reserves. “It’s official,” enthused the first lady. “Pandas are coming back to DC!” »

But that still leaves open the question of why Washington cares so much. At first glance, it’s weird.

The nation’s capital is shaping itself into a sophisticated global metropolis and yet it’s very excited about two zoo animals. The San Diego and San Francisco zoos also signed deals for Chinese pandas this year, and those cities have managed to keep their cool. What’s the deal with Washington?

Maybe it’s just that pandas are awesome. The rarest bear in the world, he is rotund and clumsy and prone to endearing falls. Unfortunately, cuteness tends not to survive close scrutiny, as adorable outbursts are overshadowed by long stretches of surly indolence. Ling-Ling first mauled a zookeeper, then a visiting panda who had been brought in to mate. The zoo said this week that the new bears won’t even play together, a concession to the reality that these adorable animals aren’t exactly lovable.

Or maybe it’s all a Palookaville legacy of proud DC types that their zoo had the pandas first. For a time, just after opening to China, Washington’s pandas were indeed unique: in 1972, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were the only examples of endangered species in the United States. But that was years ago. Eventually, there were also pandas in places like Memphis and Atlanta. The animals themselves aren’t even that rare anymore: Last year, pandas went from endangered to merely vulnerable.

My theory is that Washington subconsciously loves pandas precisely because they have nothing to do with what the city is supposed to be.

The San Diego and San Francisco zoos signed agreements for Chinese pandas this year. | Jim Watson/Getty Images

The nation’s capital is steeped in red, white and blue imagery. Its teams have names like Capitals and Senators and Nationals and Commanders. Its roundabouts are dotted with equestrian statues of generals. Its friezes are decorated with bald eagles. His concept of self involves work, patriotism and valiant struggle. A heavy, grumpy, black and white species, pandas evoke none of that.

What a nice change, in a city like Washington, to have a civic mascot that doesn’t make you think about politics and statecraft.

But it is, alas, the one piece of panda identification that probably won’t last. In 2022, while the Smithsonian and China were negotiating to keep the pandas there, a law of Congress opposed panda rentals and, in the name of democracy, refused the animals’ repatriation to authoritarian China. This week’s deal sparked at least a little of the same on social media. Given the state of the world, it’s hard for anything that involves a deal with China to seem apolitical, much less ridiculous and delightful.

Which is why it might be time for Washington, for the sake of his own sanity, to fall in love with a new animal. Fortunately, the zoo offers 400 species.


Sara Adm

Aimant les mots, Sara Smith a commencé à écrire dès son plus jeune âge. En tant qu'éditeur en chef de son journal scolaire, il met en valeur ses compétences en racontant des récits impactants. Smith a ensuite étudié le journalisme à l'université Columbia, où il est diplômé en tête de sa classe. Après avoir étudié au New York Times, Sara décroche un poste de journaliste de nouvelles. Depuis dix ans, il a couvert des événements majeurs tels que les élections présidentielles et les catastrophes naturelles. Il a été acclamé pour sa capacité à créer des récits captivants qui capturent l'expérience humaine.
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