WASHINGTON - In this season of passages, of presidential regrets and “new beginnings,” we are transfixed by bears.
No, not markets. Pandas.
For the jaded and the weary and the many vagabonds of political upheavals, a trip to the National Zoo here will restore the spirit. (And, probably, lighten the purse - what souvenirs!)
With as much national excitement as when the first pandas came to Washington a generation ago (1972), the arrival of Mei Xiang (may sh-ONG and her young male friend Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN) has thrilled everyone with a heartbeat.
Their first official visitor just before the public viewing a few days ago was outgoing President Clinton, who professed himself mesmerized. Ogling pandas has to beat ogling those zeroes showing the millions of dollars he and his wife have borrowed for mortgages lately.
Pandas “have a more efficient elimination system than we do,” said the outgoing leader of 280 million people, happily showing off his new-found knowledge. “They take whatever nutrients they need and eliminate the rest. It's not like if we consumed 40 pounds a day. We'd be obese.”
As usual, Washington has gone overboard to welcome the new pandas. There is a Web site (http://panda.si.edu/pandacam) to watch the pandas via the Internet. There are the aforementioned pricey souvenirs - would you believe a $65 toaster that imprints a panda on your breakfast bread? A conductor of the Washington Symphony Orchestra has written “March of the Giant Pandas” in their honor. Washington's elite have partied at receptions and dinners in their honor.
There is live TV coverage of panda sightings. Zoo director Lucy Spelman, a down-to-earth scientist, has become a national celebrity. There are newspaper supplements. There are, as always, long, long lines (250 deep at one point) to view the pandas for 10 minutes.
The panda house, in disrepair after the previous occupants, has been refurbished for $2 million. Listless Ling Ling and sour Hsing Hsing died (in 1993 and 1999 respectively) without producing offspring after somewhat dreary lives of playing on a sad little platform and eating rice gruel and milk.
Now, there are built-in outdoor air conditioners to cool the pandas in summer. There is a nearby farm that produces bamboo (free from the auto exhaust of the city) for the pandas, who eat 100 pounds of bamboo a day as well as nutritionally fortified biscuits, berries, apples, and carrots. There are interesting rocks and trees.
China, the only place where giant pandas are found, is being paid $1 million a year for the loan of the pandas for 10 years, all of it raised through private donors. The money is supposed to be set aside for panda research. With their habitat disappearing and because of the difficulty of breeding pandas in captivity, giant pandas are seriously endangered. Pandas are rarely seen in the wild, but it is estimated that there are fewer than 1,000 pandas left. The United States has seven - two in Washington, two in Atlanta, and two in San Diego who have produced a cub.
Black-and-white pandas, with their black eyes, round heads, and fluffy black ears, are a lot more adorable than presidents, the other species in this city whose house is a public attraction for tourists. But because they are so cute, pandas must be kept away from humans, and Ms. Spelman notes that the pandas' keepers do not go into their cages or their outdoor play areas to play with the pandas.
“They are bears,” she says emphatically. “They have huge jaw muscles to snap the bamboo. They play with force.”
Even as she stresses that these are wild creatures, Tian Tian (Chinese for more and more) and Mei Xiang (beautiful fragrance) roughhouse. They bite. They pummel. They wrestle. They swat.
Braving bitterly cold temperatures, the crowd goes wild - and misses the point. “I want to touch them,” mourns a 7-year-old. Teens who have skipped school yearn to pet them. Even the hands of grown-ups automatically reach out, eager to feel fur.
Seeking satisfaction, tourists are lured to the gift shops, where more than 300 panda items are for sale, including stuffed pandas for $200. One pundit noted that the zoo went seeking pandas and found a cash cow.
Marvelously, admission to the zoo to see the pandas is free. And unlike another new arrival to Washington, the pandas don't give speeches, don't make promises, and seem to relish having everything they do open to public scrutiny.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at email@example.com.