As a lifelong panda enthusiast (some might call me strangely obsessive), I thought I knew everything there was to know about the cuddly-looking giants. But I was wrong. During my visit to the National Zoo, I learned that pandas have no shame.
This was my second time seeing the animals I have adored since I was a little girl. I have already seen the two pandas at the beautiful San Diego Zoo a few years ago, and I practically bought out the souvenir shop. So, with a $20 spending limit, I set out for the National Zoo on a beautiful afternoon to check out the pandas. My timing was perfect because it is mating season.
Pandas are endangered – there are less than 1,000 left in the wild – because of a loss of natural habitat and dangerously low reproductive rates, among other factors. Females are only fertile for two to three days each year, and even then they are not very receptive to male advances.
If a panda does get pregnant, the baby’s chances of survival are less than stellar – if twins are born, the mother abandons one because she must devote all of her energy to nurturing one offspring. Panda babies are hairless, blind and remarkably tiny – they fit in the palm of a hand easily. It is amazing to think that they grow up into 240-pound bamboo-processing machines.
After riding the red line Metro to the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan stop, I walk a few blocks along Connecticut Avenue to the zoo. It’s best to get there earlier or later in the day to avoid the huge crowds – usually the lines at the panda exhibit are lengthy. To get to the pandas, I have to walk through an indoor exhibit, but I practically run to the exit because I know I’ll go through at least twice (I ended up passing through three times, and I had plenty of time to check out all of the information and pictures inside).
Once outside, I eagerly walk down a ramp toward the outdoor exhibit. And there is the male panda, Tian Tian (which is pronounced t-YEN t-YEN and means “more and more” in Chinese – wishful thinking for the endangered species), chilling on a tree branch in the left-most part of the exhibit. After taking a few pictures, I move along to the other section of the large outdoor exhibit. There, playing with a trashcan lid and some paper, is Mei Xiang (pronounced mah sh-ONG, meaning “beautiful fragrance”- again, wishful thinking for a huge, wild animal), the female. She is clearly the attention-getter, and the crowd loves her.
All of a sudden, Mei Xiang loses interest in her toys and climbs a nearby low tree, and things start to get interesting. She rubs her backside up and down against the tree bark, and everyone around me thinks she is just scratching – the children are highly amused. But I know what is really going on. Female pandas do this exact activity to release a sticky, smelly substance that serves as panda perfume to lure the males into their territories (pandas live alone in the wild).
As it is mating season, I wonder if Tian Tian will be coming to check out the scene. And, sure enough, about a minute later, he lumbers over to Mei Xiang’s tree. Now, I love panda bears, but I am not certain I want to watch them try to procreate. But I figure the odds are against me witnessing a 15-second act that occurs, at most, only a few times within a two- to three-day period. Well, I am wrong, because Tian Tian climbs right on top of Mei Xiang and they start going at it.
Nothing – not doing research in high school and college for reports and papers, not reading books, not watching countless documentaries -could have prepared me for watching Tian Tian and Mei Xiang copulate mere feet in front of me. It is bizarre to watch them mate while the people around me “ooh” and “ahh” and laugh. I just stand there, awestruck, at the incredible activity and the tremendous impact it could have on the panda species. And yeah, I am also a little grossed out.
The little kids around me think the pandas are fighting, which is not an odd assumption considering panda sex consists of rough humping, biting and lots of bleating on the female’s part – a sign of interest, actually. And then, just as soon as it began, the sex is over. Tian Tian climbs off and moseys on to another part of the enclosure – a typical guy.
Although the five- and six-year-old pandas have been in D.C. since December 2000 (they are on a 10-year loan from China), this is the first year they are mature enough to reproduce, although they tried their hand at mating last year, too. It is lucky they are mating at all during the short, annual fertility period – sometimes the picky females reject male advances entirely, and zoologists and researchers have to wait until the following year for more positive results. But hopefully this year, in three to five months, a new panda will be brought into the world.
Soon after their pornographic moment, each panda retires to separate indoor areas. They eat for a little while and then curl up and go to sleep, apparently satisfied with the day’s activities. And, one roll of film, a T-shirt and a unique experience later, I am, too.