You’d think The Beatles had reunited and were coming to Toronto for a visit. The press was going wild, the prime minister was at the airport to greet the honored guests, police escorts were required, and residents of the city remained feverish with excitement … all for the arrival of Er Shun and Da Mao. Not pop stars back from the dead, but two giant pandas from China.
The Toronto Zoo — which along with the Calgary Zoo will host the pandas during their decade-long visit — is packed with passionate panda fans (even though they won’t be available for public viewing until a 30-day quarantine has ended). And the zookeepers have even created their own panda-themed Harlem Shake in honor of the pair.
The Toronto Zoo becomes the sixth place in North America (following the lead of four zoos in the United States and one in Mexico) to be graced with the honor of housing the creatures that symbolize endangered animals and our quest to save them. The enthusiasm surrounding the panda programs at each of these other locations is indicative of the pandemonium overtaking Toronto this week.
It’s a splendid welcome, but you have to wonder: Why in the world do giant pandas elicit such excitement? What is it about these animals that makes us go so bonkers?
Ron Swaisgood, director of Applied Animal Ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, suggests that one of the main reasons we love giant pandas so much is because they are distinctly anthropomorphic; they remind of us ourselves.
"They eat sitting up using their hands and their special pseudo thumb, which is actually a modified wrist bone," he told the BBC News website. They handle food like we do, and he notes that the classic pose for a panda eating resembles the way we sit on the floor.
But even more than our narcissistic attraction to their human-like gestures, it’s those eyes that inspire our most drawn-out girlish responses.
Scientists aren’t sure why giant pandas have such distinctive black-and-white markings; it’s assumed the color scheme acts as camouflage against snowy and rocky surroundings, but those eye patches are the clincher. It turns a pair of otherwise ordinary beady eyes into something irresistible.
"People love big eyes because it reminds them of children," Swaisgood says. "This is called neoteny in scientific terms."
Neoteny refers to the retention of juvenile features into adulthood, and when it comes to pandas, which seem to be perpetually grinning and looking like babies, we just can’t get enough. The San Diego Zoo website notes that, like giant pandas, "our own young have characteristics that we humans respond to such as a big, round head, large eyes, a high forehead, and a roly-poly body. We are programmed to respond to these babyish looks. Babies just make us like them and want to care for them. It is part of our human makeup."
In other words, we just can’t help ourselves; it’s our nature to love giant pandas.
Add in that giant pandas are rare and endangered (there are only around 1600 of them left), and we are left defenseless. Their underdog status creates an urge to be their guardians — and their most ardent fans.
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