This past weekend we traveled to Chengdu, the location of the National Panda Breeding Center. It’s no joke that pandas need help breeding. Apparently, if we’re to believe the short informational video that accompanied the exhibits, if left to their own devices, these adorably rotund animals would live adult lives as solitary creatures. They are anti-social by nature, and the females are apparently finicky about their choice of mates. When estrus arrives at about the age of five, they announce this to the rest of the panda world by crying loudly, urinating frequently, and rubbing against the trees and rocks of their surrounding territory inviting suitors, who they then frequently reject biting and batting at their heels. They are also prone to false pregnancies, which take them out of the dating game during peak season, further jeopardizing their fertility.
The ladies apparently aren’t solely to blame for these romantic blunders. The video I saw last year at the Center suggested that males were also often responsible for failing to consummate what might have been a successful mating, simply due to the inadequate size of their members. Seriously. For some reason this delicate detail has since been omitted from last year’s video.
But even when successful mating occurs, the gestation period and early infancy of baby pandas are fraught with hazards. Newborns weigh an average of 100 grams, which is about one-one thousandth the weight of the average mother. According to the narrator of the film (who spoke with a very authoritative, albeit prim-sounding British accent), this average birth weight means that all baby pandas are born premature and simply can’t survive without tremendous support and protection.
Looking at the images of these newbies on the screen, I’m convinced. They have that same kind of primordial fragility I see in newly hatched baby birds: eyes shut tight, skin hairless and nearly translucent. But unlike most birds, who nest and guard their eggs, and who set off to forage just as soon as their babies are hatched, panda mothers apparently rarely possess any inherent maternal instincts. The video showed one mother batting her squeaking cub around at birth; her large and clumsy paw appearing twice the size of the cub, which looked something akin to a wet rodent. Fortunately an expert at the breeding center jumped in and retrieved the cub before any damage was done. The video did reassure us that mothers get better and better at this after ten years of breeding. The experienced mother will constantly hug and lick her cub for the first 33 weeks, and the baby will remain with the mother for a year and a half before venturing far from her side. But with a worldwide panda population of only 2,000, who has time to wait ten years for the aging mother to figure out the fundamentals of an attachment style of parenting?
The Panda Breeding Center is a full-service matchmaking and maternal care facility. The pandas no longer need to worry about the pesky details of courtship and childcare. In fact, from what I could glean from the video, the pandas there are apparently virgins, their reproductive functions facilitated by high tech equipment and gloved technicians. According to the narrator, when the panda experts first began experimenting with artificial insemination for pandas they tried a method called “artificial semen collection combined with anesthetization” but this didn’t work very well (no kidding…). Now they use a high-tech method called “massage combined with electric stimulation semen collection” which is apparently much more successful. Yes, I sat through this video with my students giggling on either side of me, and yes, the narrator really did say those exact words in a prim yet authoritative British accent. And yes, our dean of Social Work really did blurt out “Do they mean a vibrator?” resulting in our row erupting in laughter.
It is stunning to me that pandas have been on this planet for 8 million years. The average lifespan of a species is 5 million years. And I won’t even get into what it takes to actually feed these celibate vegetarians. They really are around against all odds.
Good thing they are so dang cute. When they eat, they lie on their backs and gnaw on bamboo stalks held between their clumsy paws, piles of stems and leaves mounting on their pillowed tummies. When admiring spectators focus their cameras they cock their large round heads and stare with expressions that look both winsome and worried. The students and I stood at one enclosure wall, hearts beating wildly, as a sleeping baby panda rocked precariously on a dangerously high and narrow limb, rock-a-bye panda ready to flop. Everyone in our crowd stood poised and ready to leap into that enclosure to catch a falling cub. Apparently the male college business majors of our species possess maternal instincts that far surpass those of your average panda mama. We took picture after picture (my iPhone camera doesn’t do these creatures justice), and many of the students purchased large, cozy panda-shaped gifts to tote home to their boyfriends and girlfriends and siblings and parents. What can I say, we’re soft that way. And I have no doubt the panda species will survive into the future, celibate and all.