Canada was in a lather Monday morning as two pandas that had been FedExed from China to the Toronto Zoo finally arrived in the country. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen were there to greet Er Shun and Da Mao, a scheduling decision that has everything to do with the bears being a gift from the Chinese government, and not a thing to do with the event being a perfect photo op that will lead all evening newscasts during which grinning anchors will refer to "panda-monium" as they die a little on the inside.
While the nation breathlessly awaits the bears' unveiling, here are a few things you need to know about the weird and dark side of pandas:
They are an endangered species that is terrible at sex but likes pornography. There may be fewer than 2,000 giant pandas left on the planet in the wild and in captivity, but getting them to breed in captivity has become something of a bedroom farce. The females only go into heat once a year, some time in the spring, and are only fertile for three days at most. If you only got to do it once a year during an indeterminate few days, you'd be lousy at it too. Last year, a mating pair loaned by China to the Edinburgh Zoo were so clumsy that a zookeeper was required to reach in-between the bears with a long pole and move the female's tail out of the way. Sexy.
Typically, researchers blame the females. (They'd tried giving Viagra to the males and that didn't work.) The suspicion is that lady pandas lose their desire in captivity, so this year the keepers at China's main panda breeding and research centre showed one mating pair a video of pandas doing it in the wild. And it worked! The porn led the pair to copulate twice. We still don't know if the female actually got pregnant, but we do know pandas dig hard-core.
They are expensive to keep in zoos. According to a 2006 New York Times article, pandas cost five times as much as the next most expensive animal to be kept in a zoo. They are shy animals that require custom-built shelters, extra handlers and mammoth amounts of bamboo, which is expensive to import and to grow in North America. FedEx has a deal to ship 900 pounds of bamboo per week to the Toronto Zoo during the pandas' stay. (Er Shun and Da Mao will be shipped to Calgary after five years for the second half of their 10-year visit.)
And then there are the fees the Chinese government charges for what is essentially an animal-rental service. The Times says the typical 10-year contract for a mating pair costs $1-million (U.S.) a year. Zoos can count on big increases in visitor traffic when they get pandas, but the traffic can dwindle over the course of a 10-year deal. Unless, of course, the pandas manage to have offspring, which can be a huge draw and rekindle interest. But, again according to the Times, the rental fees automatically go up by as much as $600,000 a year when a pair has a cub.
Pandas are political pawns of the Chinese government. Let's face it: If the Canadian government consistently voiced loud public objections to human rights abuses and Internet censorship in China and didn't work assiduously to increase trade between the two countries, would we be getting a pair of pandas?
They're cute as hell, but they may not be worth breeding in captivity. It's not a popular opinion, especially since the panda is the official mascot of the powerful World Wildlife Fund and a universal symbol of conservation, but at least one person thinks breeding the bears in captivity is not worth the millions it costs. Pandas are in danger because their natural habitat, bamboo forests, is disappearing. A British TV show host made the argument in 2008 that there's no point breeding so-called "celebrity animals" if their habitat no longer exists, especially when it's done at the expense of less trendy species. "I reckon we should pull the plug," said Chris Packham. "Let them go with a degree of dignity.
"The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century," Mr. Packham argued.