Why are we fascinated with pandas?

The arrival of two giant pandas from China today will likely generate a good deal of fanfare in Toronto, where the bears will be on display at the city zoo starting in mid-May. Excitement is a fairly common reaction to these odd and incredibly rare animals. But why do people seem so obsessed with pandas?

Pandas seem to 'invite our nurturing instinct,' says one expert

The pandas are coming, the pandas are coming

10 years ago
Duration 3:28
Two giant pandas arrive from China Monday morning, for a 10-year stay, first in Toronto and then on to Calgary.

The arrival of two giant pandas from China today will likely generate a good deal of fanfare in Toronto, where the bears will be on display at the city zoo starting in mid-May.

Excitement is a fairly common reaction to these odd and incredibly rare animals. But why do people seem so obsessed with pandas?

Two of the most popular answers to that question point towards their unusual behaviour and markings, as well as their endangered status.

"It’s really a tough one to answer," said Laura Doty, communications specialist with the Memphis Zoo, one of only four zoos in the U.S. that has pandas.

"They’re cute, they’re cuddly, but they’re also different and I think that’s why everyone feels so drawn to them."

Many cite the panda’s propensity for sitting upright on its hindquarters while casually munching on a stalk of bamboo grasped by an enlarged wrist bone that functions like an opposable thumb. It has an eerie, human-like appearance.

Its two-tone colouring, including a white face punctuated by black ears and spots over its eyes, also adds to its unique look.

"It seems to invite our nurturing instinct," said Henry Nicholls, author of The Way of the Panda, adding that the bear’s flat face, large eyes and clumsy nature make it appear almost like a baby.

"For some reason it’s very easily anthropomorphized."

Incredibly rare

The obsession with pandas also stems from the fact that they are incredibly rare, Doty said. Though much loved, there are only about 1,600 of them in the wild, and around 300 in captivity, most in China.

"A lot of people love pandas and have never got the chance to see them in person," she said.

The two pandas arriving on Monday — five-year-old female Er Shun and four-year-old male Da Mao — will be in Canada for 10 years, first in Toronto and later in Calgary, under an agreement that is often called "panda diplomacy." During the 1980s, a number of zoos across Canada hosted pandas for short stays, including in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary.

Japan received a pair of giant pandas in the months after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Shin, pictured here, gave birth to a baby panda at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo in 2012. (Tokyo Zoological Park Society/Reuters)

One of the most high-profile exchanges occurred in 1972, when China loaned panda bears to the U.S. following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit as chilly relations between the two countries began to thaw.

Zoo officials often pin high hopes on the arrival of the bears, expecting a boost in visitor attendance. But pandas do not come cheap.

Nicholls said zoos will typically pay $1 million per pair per year over the 10-year arrangement, although the figure can vary. He said zoos can often expect a surge in visitors during the first year, but that can taper off.

Panda prestige

Having the pandas can boost a zoo’s reputation as a research institution, he said, though it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the educational value for zoo visitors.

"The costs and benefits are difficult to weigh up," Nicholls said.

Part of the expense for keeping pandas is a result of their unique diet. Despite being classed as carnivores, pandas subsist almost exclusively on bamboo, which offers little in the way of calories. The animals must consume a large amount of it – between 12 and 40 kilograms a day – and spend between 10 and 16 hours each day foraging and eating. Another biological quirk of the animals is that females are only able to become pregnant during a 24-to-72 hour window once a year.

So there is often a lot of media hype when the animals are expected to breed, a notoriously difficult encounter to arrange while the pandas are in captivity.

To help stimulate the endeavour, officials have reportedly tried using Viagra.

Found on only a handful of mountain ranges

Pandas are also closely associated with conservation on a global level, in part because the World Wildlife Fund uses the animal as its logo, Nicholls said.

"To the West [the panda] is just shorthand for a nurturing, conservation kind of mindset," he said. "So it’s a lot of positive emotions that it engenders."

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The animal itself is also an example of the impact of farming, forest clearing and development can have on wildlife. Although once more widespread, the panda can now only be found on a handful of mountain ranges in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.

It is listed as endangered on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s red threat list.

The organization says the primary threat facing the animals is a degraded and restricted habitat, although efforts by the Chinese government to protect some areas has possibly led to an increase in their population over the last few years.

A portion of the loan money paid to the Chinese government is supposed to go towards conservation efforts, Nicholls said.

Still wild animals

Despite the widespread love for pandas and their cute appearance, some visitors in the past have forgotten that they are still wild animals.

There have been a small number of panda attacks in China after people climbed into pens to get a closer look at the animals, or even tried to touch them.

Although there have been no such incidences at the Memphis Zoo, or any incidences outside of China, it seems, Doty said pandas need to be loved from afar.

"People are kind of lulled into a sense of security because they do appear so cuddly," Doty said, "but we need to remember that pandas, as well as any other animal in a zoo, are still wild animals, so we need to treat them as such — with respect."