Pandas for You and Me

Yesterday I went to Taipei City Zoo to see the animals. Not those in the animal "houses", but those outside in the open, milling around with their young, having temporarily escaped from their own pens and cages in the city into the more verdant, exotic territory of Taiwan's resident penguins, koalas and elephants.

The koala house, situated near the zoo entrance, was very popular, judging by the constant flow of humans through the small gallery at the front. Perhaps "flow" is not quite the right word to describe their behaviour; after all, some did pause for ten or twenty seconds, a few even for a whole minute. They would look into the glass and concrete boxes that the koalas live in, and let out different calls. I wondered what they were doing, so I observed them a little longer.

I counted altogether six different calls. The first, mostly from the young, went like this: "Is it fake?"

I took this call to mean that because the koalas were keeping very still (they rest and sleep for about nineteen hours a day, and are nocturnal), and possibly because in their own habitat the young humans are exposed to all kinds of hi-tech toys and virtual reality, they had developed a high level of suspicion when faced with a living, breathing animal clinging motionless to a branch propped up with steel supports on a concrete floor, displaying only its rear end.

The second call came from one or both parents: "It's real, it's real!"

I wondered what made the parents so sure. They stared hopefully at the sleeping exhibits, waiting for the evidence. Their young stared, too, or struggled to turn around in their pushchairs so they could look at something else.

Some parents agreed with their young that the koalas looked fake or "just about ready to die", and left. For those who stayed long enough, however, there was usually some action, stimulating a satisfied "See? It moves!" or "It's eating!" or "It's scratching itself!" from the parents. This acted as a signal that it was time to get the camera out and take a picture of themselves in front of the glass and concrete box with the now definitely real animal inside.

It seems that this is a sort of guessing game that humans like to play with their young, whereby they take turns at guessing whether an animal is real or fake, then they wait and, depending on whether the animal moves or not, one of them wins, they take a picture so they can remember the game later, and they go and find something else to do. I can't think of any other explanation. I did once hear someone say something about "education" in the context of humans looking at animals in glass and concrete boxes. But since there was no one around to explain anything about the animals' natural habitat or even what kind of leaves they were eating, the only thing that anyone could have learned from the display (judging by all the human calls I heard) would be that, even under halogen lighting, koalas are "cute" (there was unanimous agreement on this among the adults), eat some kind of leaf and scratch themselves from time to time, but generally keep very still with their eyes closed.

There was some useful information in the form of a few little signs that said in Chinese and English not to use flash photography or make loud noises, but I guess none of the visitors could read Chinese or English, or maybe they thought it was a joke, because they used a lot of flash photography and made a lot of loud noises. I spoke to the zoo attendant, who, like me, was standing nearby quietly observing the humans.

"Can they see and hear us?" I asked (about the koalas).

"They can see us, but they can't hear us - look at the glass," he replied, pointing at the glass.

I looked at the glass.

"Why does it say not to make loud noises?" I asked.

"Well…eh," he said, "You know, we have to be quiet for them," he said, pointing at the glass again.

It was a very informative conversation. He also told me that the animals were indeed bothered by the flash photography, but that there were too many humans (that means between two and ten) for him to control it. When I asked him about the leaves, he revealed a rich source of information I had somehow not noticed before – on the wall there was the logo of the Australian group that had helped arrange for the koalas to be brought here, in which there was a little illustration of some leaves.

"That's eucalyptus," he confided in me.

I went round the corner and found four more koalas, and a large number of humans (I didn't count them, what's the point these days?). On the way up the little path to these other glass and concrete boxes, I passed some signs, one of which explained rather defensively why the koalas don't move around much. I assumed this was for humans who had complained that they weren’t getting the entertainment they had paid for. Perhaps they were tired of losing the guessing game to their young, who were cleverly guessing "fake" every time. But as far as they were concerned, the signs might as well have been there to keep the wind out; they walked right past them and up to the koala boxes to play the guessing game and try out their flash photography.

There are, of course, other groups of humans that come to the zoo. They do
"research" that is supposed to help us understand the animals so we can protect them and their habitats. I know this because I read Taipei City Zoo's proposal for raising the two pandas that everyone is talking about. (If you haven’t heard anything about the pandas, just look in the newspapers from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and you are bound to find some information and propaganda). There was one part of the proposal that I thought was really well written, about the behavioural research they want to do on the pandas. It goes like this:

"Objectives: To understand the daily behavioural patterns and reproductive, nursing, aggressive and other social behaviour of giant pandas in the Taipei City environment…"

As soon as I read this I knew that Taipei City Zoo would be the perfect place for this kind of research. After all, you can't observe how a panda behaves in the Taipei City environment if it's running around loose in the wild in Sichuan Province in China. However, I have yet to find out what this has to do with saving pandas or their natural habitat; the part of the proposal that I read didn't go into so much detail, and the Council of Agriculture, the Ministry of Education and all those other people who have copies of the rest of the proposal are not sharing it with the public, perhaps because it's politically sensitive and therefore not really anything to do with the public or conservation.

There's something else I feel a little uncomfortable about. Some of the staff at the Zoo told me that, as with the koalas, the Zoo doesn't have the right environment or staff to look after giant pandas properly. I don't know how concerned I should be about this--maybe the Zoo authorities are planning to turn over a new leaf and dedicate themselves to providing five-star facilities. With the kind of budget they have allocated to the panda proposal and that generous NT$200 million donation from the Shin-Kong Group, you'd think they'd have enough money to nail a whole lot of propped-up bamboo to the floor and make it look all lush and natural for the humans, to distract them while they wait for the pandas to move.

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Christina MacFarquhar