In reporting the shutdown of the U.S. Government, the New York Times has made sure that one crucial fact has not been overlooked: the shutdown of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s “Giant Panda Cam.” It appears that a lot of folks have been checking out the sights from this camera, one of the fifteen live feeds of animals the zoo makes available, to see the cub born to giant panda Mei Xiang. According to the Times, “The site racked up 847,000 page views by the end of August, most of them after the cub was born….” At the moment, all that one can see from the Panda Cam feed is an error message on a black screen.
Discussing pandamania, when the first giant Pandas from China became spectacular attractions at zoos in the U.S. in the 1980s, Alexander Wilson, in The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (1991) makes this observation:
“Preserving a few rare or curious species of animals in a zoo does nothing to prevent the destruction of the complex natural systems they used to inhabit – in fact, it may have the opposite effect. This problem presents a dilemma for the environmental movement. By rescuing some endangered plants and animals from an impending development, or restoring an abandoned open-pit mine, are we discouraging responsible ways of living on this Earth?”
Things have changed in the pandascape since Wilson wrote this, but the dilemma he outlines persists and the question he poses remains pertinent. What has greater value: the maintenance of the Panda Cam, or the maintenance of the Panda? As a recent post — Breeding Programs in Zoo — on this blog stated: “Why do we have to regard zoos as a last-resort emergency ward? Why don’t we pay more attention on protection of the habits?(sic)”
It seems to me that Wilson offers an answer, one that is not too reassuring about our relationship to our fellow fauna, when he describes a pressure that drives display imperatives at zoos:
“The other crisis facing many zoo planners and directors is one peculiar to consumer capitalist economies: how to continue to attract a market while exhibiting the same old merchandise? There is stiff competition for what in the business is called the “family recreation dollar.” Hardly visible thirty years ago, theme parks, waterslides, aquariums, campgrounds, heritage parks, and museums now clutter the North American continent.”
So, one can conclude that the show must go on, even if there is no way to watch it, and even if — it could happen! — the animals no longer exist. Zoos might have to turn to out-0f-work former government employees to don some of the surplus hides that fill the closets of our natural history museums and have them play the roles of telegenic creatures.
Or, maybe there’s another approach. Since Wilson suggests that these acts of preservation for display in zoos may have a destructive effect, eliminating the habitat of the species whose survival hangs in the balance, might we not consider putting select members of the United States government in a cage in the Smithsonian National Zoo? It could generate a little revenue, from the “family recreation dollar,” to enable the U.S. government to pay some bills. It might also be the best way to ensure the destruction (which they have already done so much to foster) of their habitat, and their eventual extinction. Or, is this not, unfortunately, unnecessary? We can already watch their antics on camera, and they are not, and never will be, Pandas.