PARIS — At the Beauval Zoo in central France, visitors line up every day for a chance to glimpse at His Majesty Yuan Meng. The animal's birth, on Aug. 4, 2017, was followed by 26 million people on social media. Baptized with great pomp and circumstance by French First Lady Brigitte Macron in a ceremony attended by Chinese officials, this young prince spends pretty much all his time dozing, indifferent to the fervor he arouses.
And it's not just here. In Washington, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing— gifts from Mao Zedong to Richard Nixon in 1972 — chomped on bamboo in front of more than 60 million visitors before their idle days came to an end (in 1992 and 1999 respectively).
Pandas, it's fair to say, have become the objects of a global cult. Year after year, the image of the panda imposed itself everywhere, from the WWF logo to video games, from mangas to animation movies and cartoons. Chantal Goya, a French singer for children, celebrated "Pandi Panda" in a famous song. Automaker Fiat named one of its most popular car models after the animal. And in the world of science, biologist Stephen Jay Gould managed to make the panda's thumb a symbol of the evolution of species. The list goes on and on …
A baby sports a cuddly "panda suit" — Photo: Harald Groven
Why such ubiquitous adoration? At first glance, the attention attracted by these funny black-and-white animals seems easy to understand. They look like cuddly toys, and so they move us. They're inoffensive animals, so they reassure us. They are representatives of a vulnerable and threatened species, so they rally support. They became instruments of China's powerful diplomacy, so they are respected.
But perhaps there's more to it than that. To really understand the strange cult of "pandamania," we ought to view it as a symptom, a clue. In its own way, this strange cult says something. But what?
It's no longer the same nature, and so, not the same human being either.
For starters, it speaks to the profound shift in how we perceive nature and animal life. Think about the great animals that used to dominate our collective consciousness: the wolf, the lion, the grizzly bear, for example. Those iconic species are carnivorous. The panda is vegetarian. Those powerful animals were threats against which humans had to protect themselves. The harmless panda, in contrast, is under threat, and it's our duty, as humans, to protect it from the risks that we pose to its survival.
Yesterday's predators were scary. Today's cuddly toy is touching. Instead of being afraid of the big bad wolf, children cuddle with the panda. So we went from terrible to cute, from fear to preservation. It's no longer the same nature, and so, not the same human being either. The cult of the panda — once we see it as a symptom — reveals changes in our understanding.
But that's just one of the things it tells us. Our glorification of pandas also points to preferences we have with regards to human existence, things we deem as wonderful but perhaps aren't very nice at all. Because when it comes to individual behavior and personality, those oh-so-cute pandas — if we're really honest with ourselves — are rather unremarkable, dull even.
The American journalist David Plotz, after spending years visiting the famous panda couple of the Washington Zoo, wrote in 1999 that they were "a bore," indifferent to everything. "The idea that pandas are sweet and genial is ridiculous," he wrote. "Pandas are not ill-natured. They are worse: They are no-natured."
On top of that, they spend 14 hours-a-day munching on bamboo and barely move. Only on very rare occasions — just a handful of times per year, at random intervals — do they have sex. Put all these character traits together and then ask yourself whether pandas might just be ... the future of humankind. The black-and-white bear we so obstinately admire, in other words, is an implicit representation of what we're becoming.
Just to reiterate. Pandas spend much of their time eating. They're overweight and used to be carnivorous but became vegetarian by genetic mutation. They show general indifference, frequent drowsiness, permanent inactivity and a lack of sexual desire. They don't relate well to others. Sound familiar? But I better to leave it at that: This human is starting to worry about getting sued for "pandaphobia."