Humans have a proclivity toward fawning over cute things. Some scientists hypothesize that our attraction to facial features typical of babies--large eyes, round body, etc.--is an evolved trait crucial to the survival of our helpless spawn. For the same reasons, whether this is innate or a product of socialization, humans love cute animals. And the giant panda, or Ailuropoda melanoleuca, may be the cutest of all.
Due to its adorable appearance, the giant panda is also one of the most popular animals known to man. Native to southwest China, the panda has a recognizable furry white face and body, and prominent black ears, limbs and eye patches. According to the World Wildlife Fund, which uses the giant panda as its mascot, the endangered species has a remaining population of approximately 1,600 in the wild. Efforts to preserve the panda, which is threatened by habitat decline and fragmentation as well as poaching, has resulted in Chinese conservation efforts, including the establishment of more than 30 reserves for the animals.
Another facet of China's panda program involves renting some of their 110 captive animals to zoos around the world. For most American zoos that has meant a 10-year contract and roughly $1 million in fees per animal. According to a New York Times article that came out early last year, the panda biz could be raking in $80 million dollars per year for the Chinese government, while panda rent coupled with the high cost of tending to the finicky animals is causing U.S. zoos to hemorrhage money. Many of them want out, and that's where Albuquerque comes in.
Our dusty metropolis seems poised to relieve San Diego of some endangered, bamboo-hungry weight. In 2008, San Diego Zoo's 10-year panda contract expires, and the Rio Grande Zoo may take one or two animals off their hands. Mayor Martin Chavez has expressed the need for this addition to the local zoo since at least 2005. At the same time, the City Council fought among itself about whether a panda exhibit was a good idea. Some, such as Councilor Sally Mayer, said a panda would generate revenue for the city, while others, like Council President Debbie O'Malley, argued the city should use the money it would take to rent and care for a panda to fix infrastructure.
This past July, Mayor Chavez took a nine-day trip to China in an effort to forge business relations with the country and, most conspicuously, to work on the acquisition of Albuquerque's own cute, cuddly friend. Furthermore, according to BioPark deputy director Tom Silva, the Rio Grande Zoo has planted three acres of bamboo (with space for two more acres) should these bamboo fiends, who devour 83 pounds of the plant a day, make their way to Albuquerque. If it doesn't work out, Silva says the plants will be used as ornamentals throughout the park. "[The panda] would be a great addition to the BioPark's collection and provide an opportunity for the citizens of this region to view and learn about this extraordinary animal," says Silva.
But panda acquisition raises several questions, the big one being whether it's wise to invest in what most other zoos have lost money on. Panda proponents insist the exhibit would make money for the city, drawing big-spending visitors from around the region and circulating dollars into our economy. Meanwhile, a proposed $1 surcharge for zoo admission would reportedly cover the panda's rent. Regardless of local projections, the panda's reputation for long-term economic success in other cities is dismal, while its upkeep remains the most expensive of any zoo animal.
Cultural enhancement is important to any city, but one wonders if Albuquerque couldn't get more for its money. (One also wonders if this is not a desperate attempt to assert Albuquerque's importance among other cities.) What if funds for a panda were instead spent on the sort of enhancement that figures into our own identity, not that of China? Perhaps a wiser choice, rather than seeking a fluffy new zoo attraction, would be to invest in the beautification of thoroughfares, more public art, parks and fewer empty lots and broken-down storefronts. These are things Albuquerqueans could enjoy every day, simultaneously making our often rough-looking city more appealing to visitors. Unfortunately, Albuquerque is after a panda, and a panda represents an unlikely hope for economic success hinged on the exploitation of our ingrained desire for cuteness.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.