By Christine Stoddard
Woodley Park was a hot lamp in the summertime and the tourists were all moths. They flocked to the leafy, upscale neighborhood for the zoo, or, more specifically, for the pandas, even when the panda exhibit closed to celebrate the birth of twins. But it wasn’t just the tourists pressing their noses up to the glass. Washingtonians also were overcome with panda fever, just as I, a soon-to-be new mother, had experienced baby fever a year earlier. The panda exhibit was a shrine; 11 months before, my marital bed was a shrine and Drew and I made a daily pilgrimage. When the exhibit was open, you could wait in line for two hours for the privilege of watching the pandas roll over, swat at flies, or gnaw on a bamboo shoot. When I began to show, I could wait for days for Drew to touch me. Baby fever had cooled into a waiting game.
I wasn’t so much amused by the pandas as I was the city’s enthusiasm for them. It distracted me on those days when I was dizzy, vomiting, and achy. The mania thrived beyond Woodley Park. Children roamed the National Mall, Chinatown, and Capitol Hill wearing panda hats and T-shirts with as much zeal as Justin Bieber fans. The year before, when the topic of changing the Washington football team’s racist name became a national debate, many Washingtonians suggested the team be called The Pandas. But who really wants to be named after a lethargic, oversized raccoon that can’t even effectively perpetuate its own species?
When Mei Xiang’s tentative pregnancy announcement aired on the news, Drew and I were sitting in the kitchen, eating microwavable chicken sandwiches and canned green beans. It had been 100 days since the female panda was artificially inseminated and, despite performing an ultrasound, zoo veterinarians couldn’t tell if Mei Xiang was pregnant or pseudopregnant.
Drew rose to clear his plate. As he walked back from the sink, he called pandas “lazy teddy bears,” absentmindedly patting my swollen belly as he explained that the panda reproduction program was “a waste of federal spending.”
“If they’re an argument against evolution,” he said, “why would God invent a creature too stupid to get it on? Pandas are just as much an argument against intelligent design. Talk about survival of the dumbest and cutest.”
I was reading an article in BBC World claiming wild pandas and captive pandas are, behaviorally speaking, two completely different animals when I went into labor three months too soon. It was the same day Mei Xiang popped out the first of two cubs. Like Mei Xiang, I didn’t know I had been carrying twins.
Despite the hubbub, no one is particularly enamored of newborn pandas. They are pink and wormlike with tiny white hairs not unlike the scraggly roots that spring out from a turnip. The public expects them to fluff up and fatten up into scampering cartoons, but it doesn’t happen in a week—and one of Mei Xiang’s cubs lived less than that. When panda mothers give birth to twins, they are known to favor the stronger cub over the weaker one, often resulting in the snubbed cub dying. The naturalists at the zoo thought they could trick Mei Xiang into loving her cubs equally by alternating them. That way, she would spend as much one-on-one time with the weaker one as the stronger one.
Newborn humans aren’t as adorable as we’d like, either. I don’t remember holding my son and daughter after they were born, but I do remember watching them in their incubators. That’s when I finally got a good look at them. With their crinkled alien features, they hardly resembled the models in Baby Gap commercials. Yet for all their lack of pinchable chubbiness, I loved them.
Neither was prone to adorable wiggling, either, but I loved them. In fact, they barely moved except to breathe. Yet my son moved even less than my daughter. He also was much smaller, redder, and more wrinkled. Without the nurses telling me, I knew he wouldn’t survive. The realization came on Day Three, right as the credits for Judge Judy were rolling. On Day Four, I witnessed him draw his last breath. When I looked up from his tiny body to pray or curse God—I can’t remember which—the television caught my attention. The weaker panda cub had died.
In the future, humans will have found the cure to mortality. Maybe if my children had been born a thousand years from now, they would have lived forever. Maybe in a thousand years, pandas will no longer rely on humans to propagate. Or maybe then, pandas will be extinct. But no matter how many years pass, my daughter will never have a brother and my husband and I will never have a son. We are too heartbroken. Mei Xiang will try again, or at least she will succumb to mankind’s intervention. I will raise my daughter and, once in a while, I will take her to the zoo, but I’m not sure she’ll ever see a panda. At least not with me by her side.
About Christine Stoddard
Christine Stoddard lives with her husband in their kingdom by the sea, where she edits Quail Bell Magazine and attempts magic. Her experiments have appeared in the New York Transit Museum, The Feminist Wire, So to Speak, Hispanic Culture Review, The Brooklyn Quarterly, and beyond. Witness her world at www.worldofchristinestoddard.com.