For many, the most visible sign that the 16-day government shutdown was over wasn't federal workers back on the job or barriers being removed from national memorials — it was the return of the "Panda Cam."
Thousands of people clicked on to the National Zoo's website at 10:30 a.m. Thursday to see Mei Xiang and her 2-month-old cub for the first time in more than two weeks.
But with the potential for another shutdown in January when government funding expires again, a number of the cam's fans are wondering — and posting impassioned pleas to Facebook — whether the zoo can take steps to make sure this doesn't happen again in a few months.
"I'm wondering why u can't find different funding besides the stupid government?? We waited 7 yrs to see a Mei baby!!" said one commenter to the zoo's Facebook page. Others wondered why, since the camera page says it's sponsored by Ford, it had to shut down in the first place.
It turns out the cam is partially sponsored by Ford, but is a project of the Smithsonian-run zoo in Northwest D.C. — and so it had to go dark Oct. 1 when funding for most of the government ran out. Federal employees maintain and run the camera, zooming in and panning out to keep the pandas in frame, but they were deemed nonessential and put on furlough.
Federal programs that have independent or outside funding were allowed to continue during the shutdown, but unfortunately for Panda Cam fans, that didn't help in this case. While the high-definition cameras were donated by the Ford Motor Co. Fund, replacing 12-year-old equipment, the salaries of the zoo workers are paid by the federal government.
Some agencies did find workarounds when their popular programs were closed.
After severe criticism of its shutdown decisions, the Interior Department struck deals with a handful of states that donated money to the department to reopen national parks within their boundaries. Arizona paid $93,000 a day to fund the National Park Service rangers needed to reopen the Grand Canyon.
Zoo spokeswoman Jen Zoon said they haven't looked into that kind of arrangement.
Ford, meanwhile, would not comment on whether it would be willing to put up more money to keep the cameras running if that was a possibility. Rather, they just said they're happy that the cameras are back online.
"Ford is thrilled that everyone gets to see the pandas back in action, especially the baby one!" a statement from Ford said. "There are only about 1,600 Giant Pandas in the world today and great demand for the protection of this beloved species. The Ford Fund is proud to help support panda-monium around the globe."
The panda pair spends most of the day sleeping and eating, but still draws a huge virtual crowd: the cam got 1.2 million views in just the first three weeks of the still-unnamed cub's life, Ms. Zoon said.
People were outraged when the Panda Cam clicked off.
"To the U.S. Congress: Do you people have any idea how fast a baby giant panda grows? Imagine a soldier leaving a newborn child behind at home while serving his/her country and coming back a year later to find a toddler beginning to walk and talk," one commenter on Facebook said. "We'll never get these moments with Princess back. Ever. And it's YOUR fault."
Another commenter blamed Congress for making the country miss when the cub "crossed over from being extremely cute to what I call the 'excruciatingly, painfully cute' stage."
During the shutdown, the cub gained about two pounds and her eyes partially opened Oct. 11, a release from the zoo said.
Time magazine tried to make a replacement camera, changing the position of a stuffed panda in the newsroom every few hours and even gave it a makeover, courtesy of InStyle. Even though the stuffed panda moved about as often as the real thing, for many it just didn't cut it.
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