Not that Elvis.1 I’m talking about DC’s own version, the pandas that used to be the star attraction at the National Zoo. In a high-profile exit, they left for China this week.
Needless to say, many people around here are upset.
I’m not one of them.
The National Zoo (part of the Smithsonian Institution) has a long history with pandas, going back to the delivery of the first pair in 1972. It was all part of Richard Nixon’s newly-initiated “opening” of China, what was referred to at the time as panda diplomacy.
Not long after, new leadership in China decided the animals were no longer a gift and began leasing them to zoos all over the world. For the Smithsonian, the lease was set to run out at the end of the year and China decided not to renew.
So, despite being an endangered species, pandas in American zoos are not really a conservation project. It’s all transactional. Not a big source of income but certainly a high profile political tool. Say bad things about China and we remove the cuteness.
However, none of that is why I’m ambivalent to having Pandas at the Zoo. They can be adorable and make for silly YouTube videos, but they’re not particularly interesting creatures. Plus they suck up a lot of space and funds at an organization that is always strapped for both.
I was more bothered when the Zoo closed the giraffe yard, got rid of their hippos, and moved out the capybaras.
Anyway, what happens next? What space or animal will be elevated to be the new star attraction? The face of the show.
Because, let’s face it, most zoos, especially in the US, are primarily entertainment venues. They have important side gigs devoted to education and conservation of course, but still need to maintain a steady flow of paying customers.
Since admission is free, the Smithsonian doesn’t have to worry about a decrease in visitors due to the lack of cuteness. But they likely will still lose income from parking, concessions, and merchandise. And even more importantly, less attention from Congress and fewer donations from people like me.
Although I’m not that fickle. I’ve been a long time member of the Zoo (and the independent support organization that preceded the current membership plan) at a mid-tier level and will continue to be for the near future.
After all, I’m curious to observe close-up how the administrators adapt to the lack of panda for the first time in half a century. It will be interesting to see how they reallocate the not-insignificant resources that were devoted to one species.
What happens when your long-term headliner leaves the building?
I’ve taken my share of panda pictures over many, many visits to the zoo. Just don’t ask me about their names.
1. If you’re not familiar with the phrase I stole for the post title, Wikipedia has a brief explainer.