Panda on the Menu, Best Served Rare

In an brazenly American endeavor, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York’s 12th district will visit the Chengdu Research base in China on August 12th of this year in an attempt to score for her precious city two giant pandas, to theoretically reside in the Central Park Zoo. Restated: a New York politician plans on removing two endangered species from a nature preserve whose raison d’être is the continued health of those endangered species, and placing them in a glass-enclosed back yard so her city – which made $18.6 billion in tourism in 2013, the 5th highest grossing in the world – can rake in a few more of those precious sightseer simoleons. According to her, she’s been working on this for years.

“The greatest city in the world deserves two pandas,” she says. “They’re a symbol of good luck,” she says.

I doubt the pandas agree.


Is the symbolism of their good luck in the fact that we haven’t eradicated their habitat entirely? Or is it their great fortune to birth offspring so fragile and dependent that they only have time and attention enough for one, leaving any and all of its siblings to die? Perhaps their ursine fortuitousness lies in the fact that, even though they are the most recognizable endangered species on the planet, humans – the biggest reason for their decline – still insist on buying and selling and loaning them out like were stuffed with cotton and had a price tag attached to their paw? With all due respect, Congresswoman Maloney, your endeavor is a symbol of something, too: Authentic American Assholery.

I assumed that she meant to say, “The iconic endangered species deserves to be left alone. They’re a symbol of mankind’s destructive nature,” but we shouldn’t hold our collective breath for a recantation. Abhorrent, too, is the fact that Mayor de Blasio gave her the thumbs up to pursue this asinine effort. The money is the least troublesome, though troublesome still; he is not only permitting tax dollars to be spent on the Congresswoman’s fancy trip to China (something tells me she’s not flying coach on Delta), he’s giving a preemptive go-ahead to searching for the one million dollars per year it costs to maintain a single panda in captivity, should her trip be “successful.” Worse, though, is the publicized notion that animals should and do exist to either be of use to mankind or get out of the way, summed up in true American fashion by John Tsunis, chairman of the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association: “Its [an] extraordinary type of thing, not every city or state has a panda, it would be another item on our menu that enhances New York as a destination.”

“…another item on our menu,” he says.

Distasteful as his comments are, they run parallel to Rep. Maloney’s. “New York needs some good luck and happiness,” she said. “We’ve had 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, the housing crisis,” as if every other American city has been a veritable utopia over the last fifteen years. Remember that place that used to be Detroit? Or the city in Louisiana that became a swamp and then a city again, sort of? How about the entire state of California being on fire?? Don’t they deserve pandas, too? Maybe someone should send Atlantic City a couple silverbacks since their boardwalk got washed away, and I’m sure a herd of black rhinos and loggerheads would turn the Israeli/Gaza conflict into the Garden of Eden toot sweet. Don’t they deserve it?

Not that the idea would be easier to swallow were she and Mr. Tsunis not decrying the pandas as “attractions” so blatantly and with such disregard for sentient life. They make no claims, bullshit or otherwise, to be interested in the conservation of this especially delicate species because 1) it wouldn’t have gotten the thumbs up from de Blasio, no doubt, since the city has more important concerns than assuming a responsibility the Chengdu Research base and others like it have accepted for decades, and 2) pandas are notoriously finicky fornicators. If we brought back a couple that wouldn’t touch each other with a ten-foot bamboo shoot, the platonic pair then become living, breathing, feeling statues – i.e. attractions – lest they pursue artificial insemination at which point the whole process becomes a lot more expensive and redundant and invasive than it already is (not that de Blasio nor Maloney are concerned with the latter). Maloney’s misguided mission is emblematic, however, of the disoriented function of zoological parks today.

• • •

There is no flood coming. Placing a firefly in a jar does nothing to help it, even though it is readily viewable and “protected” from outside dangers. In fact, that specific imprisonment is solely for the benefit of the imprisoner. So too with zoos.

“Roadside zoos” – i.e. animal internment camps – are the antithesis of conservation efforts and should be illegal. The cramped and filthy Reston Zoo in Vienna, Virginia, which lies less than 20 miles from the massive National Zoo in DC, has been in violation of repeated acts of animal rights violations and enclosure maintenance, including drowning an injured wallaby, untreated frostbite and injuries, and the euthanasia of “attractions” without licenses or training or equipment to do so.  Yet it still operates today. (The petition to close it can be found here). Entities like Reston Zoo, like Sea World, the circus, horse and dog tracks, poachers, dogfighting, Central Park’s hansom cabs, the bear bile industry, whalers, meat farms, and puppy mills are all horrific examples of what would be considered immoral at best and slave labor at worst – all solely in the name of entertainment and materialism – were the animals capable of articulating their opinions on solitary confinement, murder and dismemberment, isolated winters, purchase and sale with little or no regard for existing relationships, and being beaten and prodded until they correctly perform backflips or win the race or stand on one hoof.

Only in captivity do animals engage in self-injurious behavior (SIB), so common it has an acronym. This involves anything from biting themselves to pacing to eating their own regurgitated food to scraping horns and tusks against enclosure walls into bloody stumps, psychological behaviors that stem from isolation and boredom. Check the suicide rates of prisoners in solitary confinement and ponder the morality of teaching chimps how to fashion a noose.

Many zoos claim to be focused on conservation, but the altruistic conservationism of for-profit companies creates constant competition. People want (their kids) to see cheetahs and elephants, not black-footed ferrets and Wyoming toads. Lions bring in the loot. Most zoos only breed their “attractions” for the purpose of population management as opposed to reintroduction, which is more expensive and laborious than insemination and culling. Why would anyone ever expect to find polar bears and penguins in Florida or San Diego?

Answer: Because corporations like money.

Flamingos are not fireflies, no more than lions are gerbils or zebras goldfish. We are not running out of flamingos. They need not be mason-jarred, nor have their wings clipped to keep them forcibly wading through the cement pond so no little child ever has to grow up without seeing a flamingo in person. Perish the thought. Imagine how incomplete you’d feel as a human being had you not seen those giraffes on that field trip when you were younger. Wasn’t it a moment for you?

Chances are, it was not. Like the majority of kids brought to the zoo, you probably pointed at it excitedly and spent all of four seconds listening to Ms. Finklestein’s comment about their long necks before wanting to move on to the next thing. And understandably so. You’re six. Taking your 3-year-old to the zoo is no more productive than taking your toddler to the Met. Look at all the pretty paintings. See the animals? But why do adults think that seeing a live giraffe eating hay from the top a telephone pole is better than seeing a picture or watching a movie or going to a natural history museum? Probably because they all know that children don’t actually care about giraffes as anything other than one more in the lineup of funny looking animals. This leads to the aforementioned indifference toward the myriad zoo “attractions.” Adults, though, have somehow adopted the misguided notion that “experiencing” the giraffe – at this point no more than an accessory to a theme park – isn’t complete without the smell of shit and hot asphalt and fear.

• • •

If only every animal were a whale. To wit, what if your child developed an intense interest, through going to the natural history museum or watching Blue Planet or a Disney documentary, in blue whales? To what zoo would you take him? His desire to see – to experience – a blue whale would have to be strong enough to either convince his parents, or save up the money himself, to go whale watching. Eventually. And over the course of the waiting and convincing and saving for the journey that he’d have to take to see it, the chances that he might not, the hopeful anxiety, will all build up to make the occasion when he does see the massive glistening back cresting the ocean surface that much more awe-inspiring.

When were you last awe-inspired at a zoo? Shocked, maybe. But never awed.

Zoological parks, then, need to adapt, as do we, to create and instill in our children a deeper respect for the living planet we are so casually devouring. While parents and teachers encourage children to develop their own interests by introducing them to as much as possible, zoos should lay down their lions – or at least relocate them – by utilizing the multitude of North, South, and Central America’s geographical regions and varying climates to coalesce and organize their hundreds of zoological parks into several massive sanctuaries spread across all three, and marketed as destinations for educational tourism.

Northern Canada could give up a few hundred thousand acres of tundra for an arctic sanctuary, replete with penguins and polar bears and snow leopards. Half of Brazil is tropical rainforest. Florida has hundreds of miles of wetlands, New Mexico and Arizona are deserts. And I’m sure Texas would love to brag about the world’s largest grassland sanctuary, where all the lions and zebras and cape buffalo roam.

Granted, this would need the unselfish cooperation of many and the deep pockets of many more. But if our arrogance insists that we place hundreds of thousands of different species exactly where we want them to go, wouldn’t it be more gratifying to see them in their natural habitat? To do it correctly? Empathetically? Maybe even helpfully? Or is that the blusterous conceit of American Exceptionalism; that we can build the Greatest Nation in the World hiccup quick – even writing the most fair and just political document in human history in the process – all while imported human slaves took care of the hard stuff.

We are a nation of hypocrites ignorant of their hypocrisy. We love our family pets and eat veal. We rail against oligarchy and vote Clinton or Bush. We are scathing of entitlement programs but think every child should get to see a rhino. We’re more connected and less empathetic than ever.

If you can’t afford or arrange to take an arctic Canadian voyage or a safari in Texas, too bad. It’s something to anticipate, to work for, if you really want to go. It’ll make the experience mean that much more. Lions and tigers and bears aren’t a means to occupy the kids for an afternoon. Just because you can’t find your way to them doesn’t mean someone should capture them and bring them to you.

Thus the arrogance of Congresswoman Maloney, and my proposition for the New York Panda Coalition.

You want pandas in New York? Fine. Give up your snow leopards and sea lions and penguins and turn the entire Central Park Zoo into a panda sanctuary and research facility, complete with breeding and reintroduction efforts. We’ll need a much bigger swath of Central Park, and should probably include the Prospect Park, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island Zoos, too. Mayor de Blasio seems so keen on heightening tourism that he’d simply have to agree to a giant habitat full of baby pandas, right? Talk about attractions! What rich New York socialite wouldn’t throw money hand over fist at the NYPC, if as an acknowledgement of a massive donation, their rich New York socialite kids got to play with a dozen adorable panda cubs (while the other, entitlement-class children watch enviously from behind the glass, of course.)

New York could become a leader in the zoological world, merging conservation and capitalism by eschewing government funding for the NYPC and relying solely on the philanthropy of both genuine conservationists and rich parents (of which New York has by the yachtload) wanting to give their kids a thrill. It would also hopefully inspire other giant zoos to narrow and concentrate their focus on conservation and reintroduction efforts for especially needful species. New York calls dibs on pandas though. Eat it, Boston.

If you find this idea foolish, Rep. Maloney, or whimsical or silly or asinine, you’re right. But it’s no less so than yours. So let’s just say to hell with the whole idea, shall we? Besides, who wants only two pandas? This is New York, after all.