How our obsession with pandas has evolved from a disturbing dead-
is-best approach to a kinder sort of appreciation.
Considering their famous resistance to mating in captivity, it
may seem like pandas aren't much into adoring each other.
Thankfully, we humans more than make up for their apparent lack of
mutual regard: We love pandas to pieces.
People flock to zoos to see pandas up close. They're the emblems
of both China and a leading advocacy organization for animals. And
pandas are more than just cute and cuddly: they offer perspective
about evolution and serve as a tool of international diplomacy.
Our obsessive fascination with pandas might make for a great
story, especially if it comes with fresh insight into what they mean
to us and what we mean to them (for better or worse). But in the
hands of British science journalist Henry Nicholls, their tale never
moves past the level of mildly intriguing.
In fact, both pandas and people come across as more dull than
darling in Nicholl's new book The Way of the Panda: The Curious
History of China's Political Animal. Few of the human characters in
this saga leap off the page, not even the intrepid 19th-century
Western explorers who discovered pandas in China or the modern
world's panda-trading politicians.
Nicholls does succeed at explaining how our obsession with pandas
has evolved from a disturbing dead-is-best approach to a kinder sort
More than a century ago, museum collectors thought the best kind
of panda was a shot and stuffed one, the better to take home and put
on display. Ironically, this panda-unfriendly approach actually
helped people to care about them for the first time. "After all, if
you don't know what is out there, conservation is kind of
As people learned to shoot pandas with cameras instead of rifles,
they continued to fascinate scientists who argued over whether
they're more closely related to the bear, raccoon, or another
species called the lesser panda. The current consensus is that the
giant panda is a bear.
Along came a challenge for the ages: Get a bear out of China and
keep it alive, a task that required plenty of ingeniousness and
intrigue. Then zoos had to figure out what to feed the pandas at
urban zoos. (In Britain, the panda named Chi-Chi enjoyed chocolate,
a spot of tea, and porridge that sent her right into nappy time.
These days, bamboo - surprise! …