In 2012, during the dreary month of March, the keepers and researchers at Edinburgh Zoo waited to see if there was going to be a cub from the Giant panda’s that were being held in the zoo.
Every year since they were brought to the zoo, there is a public spectacle about whether or not Tian Tian (the female giant panda in Edinburgh) will fall pregnant. Since the failed attempt for natural mating in 2012, the zoo has been artificially inseminating Tian Tian at the time their hormone tests imply that she is becoming fertile, which for pandas is a brief and fragile period of 36 hours a year. However despite six attempts at getting Tian Tian pregnant, and only a brief hiatus of insemination, the zoo continues in its effort to fertilise her. This pursuit has led to a number of special restrictions being introduced such as the recent banning of high visibility jackets in the zoo to deter from putting the pair off mating. This annual charade and the special measures taken begs the question of whether or not the zoo should be doing this and if we still care.
Ever since their artificial migration here on the “FedEx Panda Express” – a specially designed panda-orientated plane – there have been criticisms of taking the pandas out of their natural climate. While the £2.6bn trade deal, in which they were included, was an impressive feat of diplomacy between the Chinese and UK governments, is it really okay to use pandas as a commodity to trade or rent or, equally, to place the animals in significantly different environment, weather and daylight hours which have been shown to upset both the panda outright and their hormones?
On top of all of this because of a strange and possibly cruel act of voyeurism, they monitor the pandas every hour of the day with numerous cameras and endless urine tests desperately waiting for them to mate. Tian Tian and her mate Yang Guang inhabit a very lavish £250,000 enclosures and have 24/7 staff waiting on them, despite this you have to wonder if it really makes up for the compromises made to their privacy and implications towards autonomy.
Giant pandas have, at least in recent decades, been seen as a cultural icon of China. Cute, fluffy, and a bit clumsy these large ursine animals have captured the public heart globally; they even feature in the World Wildlife Foundation’s logo. This fascination with these gentle, bumbling creatures has driven both funding and worldwide interest in their preservation. However, people still question if forcing them to breed and have an unnatural life for the sake of extending the species existence is better than allowing the sad fate of the animals take its course. Indeed some do believe it would be better to let the giant panda’s die a dignified death on their own terms than subject them to an unnaturally prolonged existence. This is exacerbated by the fact that breeding efforts are invasive and undignified with the male pandas being anally probed in order to collect semen samples. Of course, on the other hand, many believe that we have a duty to preserve these unique species despite problems in the way we do it.
The ongoing story of Tian Tian and Yang Guang brings into question many of our practices concerning endangered species and how we maintain their populations while avoiding treating them as rentable goods. One may question if zoos are too archaic and outdated on a whole. Zoos have been around ever since the opening of London Zoo in 1828 (Edinburgh Zoo being opened in 1913) and have been used for scientific research, education, preservation, and leisure ever since. However, despite ever-improving treatment and enclosures it is still restrictive to the animal’s autonomy and can never adequately replicate their true habitat. In exchange for the lack of freedom and dignity that is a necessity of captivity animals are provided with safety and longevity.
Image: Andrew and Annemarie via Flickr