The piteously extravagant and undeserved media and public hype over the breeding of Edinburgh Zoo’s two giant Pandas, Tian Tian and her prospective mate Yang Guang, is a cause for worry and concern. Especially at a time when we have witnessed a tragic blaze at Five Sister’s zoo in West Lothian killing a substantial number of reptiles and other animals including 11 meerkats. People seemed not too bothered by these events yet any news about Tian Tian and her oestrogen levels and we quickly turn to our screens. The BBC have now featured the sensationalised scrutiny of the panda breeding in their headlines alongside more justifiable stories, in terms of news values, like the capturing of the man suspected of being responsible for the Boston Bombings and the Earthquake in China killing more than 150 people.
Artificial insemination has been carried out on Tian Tian following a week when hormones showed she was approaching her 36-hour fertile period. In a desperate and almost forlorn attempt to get the Zoo’s most popular creatures breeding, it is telling of British Society’s very needless obsession with pandas. A grassroots campaigning animals charity, Scotland for Animals said the drive to breed Tian Tian is a a purely ‘financial and commercial’ project with the intention of ‘increasing visiting numbers to the zoo’. Scotland for Animals underwent a campaign to expose the ‘lies’ of Edinburgh Zoo who, they feel, hide the commercial implication of their actions behind a blanket emphasising ‘a conservation effort’.
Once entering the official website for the Zoo one can’t help but notice a special section dedicated to buying tickets to visit the Pandas, alongside a link to the pandacam. Even when contacting the zoo the first thing they say is to visit the website if your inquiry is connected to visiting the giant pandas. Now it’s almost impossible to contact the Zoo unless it’s an emergency inquiry because of the melodramatic amount of international attention driven towards the sex life of these sexually uninterested, animals. You can’t get away from these black and white, bamboo-eating bears. When they first arrived in 2011, loaned by the Bifengxia Breeding Centre in China, massive cheering crowds gathered as they were driven to the gates, in a spectacle as exaggerated and pathetic as the opening of Krispy Kremes in February. The media flocked like a pack of birds to the airport desperately awaiting their arrival as if they didn’t have anything else important to report on. A costly, specially-refurbished VIP enclosure was created for these celebrities as they were taken down the ‘red carpet’ into the zoo’s grand entrance. Moreover, this move signifies a wider socio-economic, cultural and political deal between the Scottish and Chinese Governments, representing the culmination of five years of political and diplomatic negotiation at the highest level. Pandas are,therefore, not just animals but ambassadors to China,and symbols of international diplomacy at the greatest standard.
The question to ask is why this intensive publicity and hype? Perhaps it’s because pandas are an endangered species, a rare and valued Chinese national treasure, meaning complete and utter precedence over every other animal in the country. There are only 1,600 of them in the wild, and around 300 in captivity. we perhaps because they are simply endearing and pleasant to look at? If 158 million people like a video of a panda sneezing on Youtube then surely they safely tick the ‘cute’ box? A more plausible reason maybe that Edinburgh is home to the only two giant pandas in the UK, surely such a rarity on our Island will inevitably give way to mass appeal and attention? Or is it something more intricate and deeper, as Henry Nicholls, author of The Way of the Panda explains, it maybe due to their almost baby-like features with their flat face, large eyes and clumsy nature.
The panda craze illustrates wider issues to do with journalism in today’s world. If there is such international and domestic fascination and excitement over the news of two pandas breeding does it qualify as important news? The acute distinction between ‘of the public interest’ and ‘in the public interest’ should be addressed. This story is quite clearly of the public interest but not in the interest of the public. In terms of generating mass political debate and changing the face and structure of countries for decades to come, the pandas are not in the same league as the conflict in Syria or the global financial recession for example.
However, as symbols of international relations, and subjects of mass tourism, marketing, merchandise and general (and genuine) adoration, these creatures will continue to attract special journalistic heed, News and the Zoo is a business, business is commercial and commercial is about selling. The Tian Tian and Yang Guang show is to go on for a while yet.
Interview with Scotland for Animals