It is not hard to get all protective and infantile when you observe dimly your first giant panda through a glass partition. The Observer reports
“Look, his wee pond is all iced over. Won’t it hurt his wee paws when he goes for a drink?” I ask the keeper at Edinburgh Zoo. “No, they prefer cold temperatures and they enjoy smashing the ice with their paws,” she replies.
I grew up in an era when Johnny Morris was king of animal television and so I have a habit of personalising the behaviour of animals, as Johnny used to do, when I watch wildlife programmes. Often I ascribe Glaswegian vernacular to them. Thus, lions and tigers are always “big” and they say things to each other like: “Ahm starvin’, big man, let’s go and jump a few of those antelopes for wur lunch.”
At the panda enclosure last week I was at it again. Yang Guang, the male of the pair currently engaging the gawping hordes, was sitting underneath his tree chomping on bamboo shoots. Unlike other wild beasts, he is happy to hold eye contact. I fancy he is challenging us. “Have you got a problem, pal?” You can also see why people are enchanted by them. The big black patches on their face make them childlike. And when Tian Tian (Sweetie) is seated and eating, she seems very human in her movements.
Yes, Edinburgh’s two giant pandas have swung to the rescue of headline writers again. Yang Guang and Tian Tian’s keepers have begun to observe behaviour that suggests that they may be about to mate.
Tian Tian has been calling out to Yang Guang (Sunshine) in the compound next door. Sunshine has been doing handstands and marking his territory in all sorts of ways. “Ah’m up for the Cup,” he’d be telling his pals. It’s the perfect feelgood story for the spring.
The female is in season for a mere two days and the show may be all over inside a minute. The keepers will expect to know when the time is right by a series of signals that will include Tian Tian’s temperature readings. The male is prone to be more aggressive at this stage and the keepers are acutely aware that Yang Guang can be inadvertently harmed while mating.
Scotland has been treated to mini treatises on how male giant pandas set about “marking their territory”. On the Scotsman’s front page, underneath a picture of Yang Guang’s trapeze routine, the caption read: “Tian Tian has started calling out to Yang Guang, who has been peering into her cage.” Surely there’s a typo in there?
Staff members at the zoo are cautiously optimistic that mating could take place as early as next week. Under the terms of the agreement with the Beijing government which underpins the 10-year panda project, though, any baby panda must be sent to China after two years. After that it will participate in China’s breeding programme in the wild and never see Scotland again. In effect, Scotland has rented the pandas for this period, which started on their arrival 14 months ago. The annual fee is around £700,000 plus food and sundries. Home for each of the pandas in Edinburgh Zoo is an enclosure the size of a small kitchen showroom. It’s a split-level number with a cave, a pond, and some shrubbery on a grass and rock terrain. Quite how the pandas will feel after 10 years of prowling this same patch is open to suggestion. The zoo insists it has a robust “enrichment” programme in which they are trained to do exercises and are made to “hunt” for food, which, although they are carnivores, consists almost solely of bamboo.
It’s clear that all those engaged in the welfare of the pandas work hard to ensure their wellbeing. But that is if you can believe any beast can be comfortable pacing up and down the same artificial strip of piece of turf for 10 years.
The zoo is sensitive about any criticism of the beasts’ mental welfare. “While we cannot replace their habitat in the wild, we can ensure the animals in our collections have everything they need to lead a safe, healthy and fulfilling life. It’s very easy to forward our own emotions onto animals and become anthropomorphic in our views towards them. This is unfair to the animals as they do not think that way.”
How do they know? Is there not a case for simply letting these extraordinary-looking creatures take their chances with nature’s indiscriminate pruning fork? No species has a sacrosanct right to everlasting life and surely it would be better to die out while living free rather than appear in this endless circus. Iain Valentine, director of conservation and research at the zoo, has heard it all before. “Pandas have existed on earth for between four million and eight million years,” he said. “Their problems only started when we arrived and began to make our presence felt. We have a moral duty to conserve them and to educate people about their habitat, health and the threats they face.”
John Robins, of Animal Concern, is a persistent critic of the panda project which he describes as a “tawdry, geo-political carve-up”. Whatever else the agreement may be about the pandas’ mental and physical welfare is not the primary objective, he says. “China has turned its panda reserves into vulgar theme parks where people stage marriage ceremonies and the rich buy holiday homes. I’d much rather see the £1m or so spent in lobbying the Chinese government to develop proper national parks where the pandas can roam free. We shouldn’t be breeding them for this questionable purpose.”
In the viewing room another group of 50 or so visitors are willing Tian Tian to do something that will make their entrance fee worthwhile. The children are outnumbered by the adults, one of whom thinks it’s a good idea to use flash photography as he aims his camera at the beast. How long though, will this national novelty last; of pressing your nose up against a window and watching a largely inert animal eat and sleep again and again and again?
If a new baby panda appears later this year in Edinburgh, it will be a great time for Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, to bury bad news. For this will be a historically unique event of seismic proportions: the world’s first Scottish panda. But will it come out for an independent Scotland? And can we please call it something normal like Colin or Tracey, rather than Twinkle or anything else too cutesy?