Joy. That’s what it was. Pure joy. If you’ve never seen a newborn panda, you’re going to want to pause right here and look at some internet pictures. That way you’ll understand the level of cuteness we’re talking about.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
See? Wasn’t that precious? Weren’t you just overloaded with nuclear cuteness?
Baby pandas are nothing but hundred-proof happiness. They are born blind, pink, fragile, and very uncoordinated.
And if you were to look at these panda internet pictures with my wife, chances are she would have elbowed you in the ribs and declared, “We’re adopting a panda.”
My wife cannot look at internet animal pictures without announcing plans to adopt. Even though we share our house with two dogs that resemble Anheuser Busch draft horses, lately she has threatened to adopt a pig, a three-legged goat, a baby badger, an elderly ferret, an albino squirrel, and a blind Burmese python.
It will be a cold day in purgatory before a python enters this house.
The Smithsonian National Zoo’s baby panda is still unnamed, but he is a cute little guy. And now the zoo’s panda team has obtained genetic proof that the cub actually IS a guy—it’s not easy to tell the gender of a panda who is about the size of a stick of butter.
Anyway, I first learned about the panda pregnancy from my friend Jon, who has three daughters that are all completely obsessed with the panda.
“Yeah,” Jon remarks, “we don’t go a day at my house without panda videos.” Jon says this with no emotion in his voice.
So it wasn’t long before I was tuning in to the Panda-cam. Each morning, I would awake, open my laptop, and check on the live feed showing the pregnant panda, Mei Xiang.
The panda team at the zoo placed cameras in Mei’s pen for a 24-hour Panda Fest. At first, the team wasn’t sure many people would care much about a pregnant panda, especially in light of COVID headlines. But, boy, did people care.
The zoo’s website had an increase in viewers by 1200%. When Mei went into labor, online visitors nearly broke the computer system. Half the world was tuning in to watch.
And I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ll tell you why I was watching. Because this has been a lousy year. The joyless headlines never seem to change. Sometimes it feels like all that’s missing from our anxious pandemic-ridden world is Rod Seriling serving as our narrator.
Day after day you see the same bold print on TV, the same bummer news in the paper. Mortality rates, infection statistics, and tales of the dying.
Certainly, I know the world is in trouble, but isn’t there any good stuff going on in the universe?
The answer is yes. And it’s happening at the national zoo. Everyone at the zoo is so giddy about the panda that it’s like Woodstock over there.
“Something like this is kind of a miracle for us,” zoo director Steve Monfort said. “It lifts the spirits of my team and the whole world.”
Part of the excitement is because Mei Xiang’s pregnancy has been a crapshoot from the get-go.
For one thing, it’s not easy for a female panda to get pregnant. She is only fertile once per year for a window of 24 to 72 hours. Also, Mei Xiang is 22 years old, and in panda years that’s the same as being Ethel Merman.
Reproductive scientists artificially inseminated Mei, but it was still anybody’s game. No zoo in the U.S. had ever successfully artificially inseminated a panda.
And even if the attempt DID work, thereby making Mei the world’s second oldest panda to give birth, the survival rate of panda babies is very low. So there were lots of risks.
Now can you see why everyone was so stoked?
By late July it was clear that Mei was definitely pregnant. The animal care team knew this from the way the large mammal kept showing an unnatural fascination with tiny baby shoes from the Walmart clearance section.
By mid-August, the ultrasound showed a fetus, a tiny skeletal structure, and strong blood flow.
Thus, while a pandemic raged, riots and protests boiled, and scandals abounded, people like me found immense joy keeping up with the life and times of a giant panda.
The big event happened one fateful morning in August. It was 6:35 a.m. I had just gotten out of bed. I was making coffee. My friend’s daughter texted: “Quick! Panda-cam! Now!”
Internet viewers started tuning in by the bajillions.
Mei wasn’t making any big movements on camera, but you could just tell she was uncomfortable. And she was making weird sounds that sounded, well… Not pleasant.
Tensions were high. This was not Mei’s first pregnancy. She has been through a few births, and she’s no summer chickadee. Mei’s older body was feeling every twitch of pain.
And finally, it happened. After a struggle, Mei Xiang gave birth to a beautiful, screaming, loud, extremely upset stick of butter. The pale baby emerged and the whole world waited to see if the cub was alive or not. The wait seemed like eternity.
Then Mei cradled her cub and everyone applauded. Across the U.S., hundreds of thousands cheered in the privacy of their own homes. A few of us even shed tears. Some of our wives even remarked, “I want to adopt a freaking panda.”
An emotional zoo director said, “With the birth of this precious cub we are thrilled to offer the world a much-needed moment of pure joy.”
Pure joy. That’s exactly what it was.
And it’s been a long time since we’ve had any.