- - Tuesday, September 1, 2015


For years, the National Zoo has come under fire, including in a blistering 2013 Congressional report over gross negligence, a scathing 2004 National Academy of Sciences report into animal deaths at the zoo and, somewhere in between, an investigation revealing that the zoo had disposed of some wild animals by sending them to a canned hunting outfit and to a petting zoo. Judging by the zoo’s current stage-managed “pandamonium,” its practices still need to be examined closely and the hype seen for what it is.

From the moment of the first panda birth, the newborns were handled as if they were trinkets — picked up and turned this way and that under the camera lights, which is inarguably harmful and certainly not beneficial to them. Showing them off to the cameras over and over again is done to bolster interest in the zoo and thus attendance.

We are told that the removal of the first baby was because mother pandas who give birth to twins in the “wild” often neglect one in favor of the other, so “animal scientists” are “saving” at least one baby. But no one at the zoo waited to see if that would be the case this time, as first one baby was immediately removed, then both of them were alternately wrenched from their objecting mother in what the zoo calls “baby swaps.” The mother fought hard to keep her babies from being taken away, but of course zoo staff won that tug o’ war.

Is it any wonder that the mother refuses to be a willing party to these exchanges?

We were told that one baby panda was “unthrifty” and might not survive anyway. The little tyke was fed antibiotics, handled, handled some more and force-fed. To what end? The cub died, but in nature, while an unthrifty baby may indeed die, he or she is not manipulated to death.

Studies show that removing infants from their mothers comes at a cost to their psychological and even physical development. Babies need their mothers, not just the antibodies in their milk but also their comfort, their scent, and the subtle lessons in mothering that they themselves will need when they grow up — if they grow up.

“Animal scientists” at the National Zoo do not appear to be moved by such cautions, and one has to look no further than the funding issues that are at play there. It costs a great deal to obtain a panda from China, on loan or otherwise, and pandas must produce babies if the transactions are to be viable. The zoo’s finances depend in large part on using “exotic” species — and few are as exotic as pandas — to attract visitors.

And we have seen other ways in which this struggle to bolster falling attendance has contradicted any mandate to put the animals’ interests first. The zoo has gone so far as to host noisy parties with live music at night on its premises, disrupting one of the few times during which the non-nocturnal animals get to rest and no doubt scaring the others.

It is hard not to return to the mother panda’s ordeal. She had already been raped — a painfully accurate way to describe artificial insemination. Then she was not allowed her privacy, which all species seek when giving birth. Her delivery did not take place on a soft forest bed as it would in nature, but in a concrete cell only slightly larger than her own body, presumably so barren and cramped as to ensure that the future, much-anticipated, exhibit specimens would be visible and easily collected.

What we have been treated to in the hoopla over the pandas’ birth is showmanship, like the old Barnum & Bailey Circus acts, not reverence for nature or respect for wildlife.

The history of the National Zoo is a shameful one. Like other tax-supported government agencies that do not function as they should, this institution desperately needs an overhaul for the good of the animals it holds prisoner.

Ingrid Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

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