Like China doesn’t already have a monopoly on adorable baby panda pictures, they’ve decided to dress caretakers as giant pandas so that they get used to the idea that they’re pandas. It’s part of a larger scheme to reintroduce them to the wild.
They’ve been breeding pandas in captivity since 2003. About 300 live in captivity and 1,500 in the wild. In May they announced they’d set up a sight near Dujiangyan in Sichuan.
Is all this panda puppetry really necessary? Well, it couldn’t hurt. But imprinting is more of a serious problem with birds, especially precocial birds, that is, those that hatch eyes open and ready to walk. The most notorious imprinters are Whooping Cranes, which can’t even be raised by Sandhills, lest they refuse to mate with their own kind.
Wildlife rehabilitators do occassionally dress up as other animals. The Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill, CA, designed a plan to have a team of scentless volunteers dress as a mother bobcat to a solo cub, who was otherwise shown mirrors and had only negative experiences with humans. Generally rehabbers don’t have to dress up as their deer, squirrel or raccoon charges; they just put them in with babies of their own kind.
If Chinese researchers were more serious about preventing imprinting, they might look first to the programs where foreign tourists pay to handle panda cubs or stay for a week and “volunteer” at the panda center. For $45-$60 you can go on the 4-hour “China Tour to Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding & Research Base and Hold Panda Baby in Your Lap for Photo.” You can also pay to stay for up to a month. Or you can become “Volunteer Nurse Assistant to Bath Wash Panda and Watch Newborn Infant Baby in Incubator Nursery,” which costs $225 for “5-7 minutes” or $1,275 for a whole day.
I doubt those programs do any harm. They probably offer up only panda that aren’t going to be released–though it would be hard to tell at that age which would be the best candidates. Even the new center would only have room to train three to five pandas. The “panda nurse” program certainly provides funding for the pandas and possibly an economic incentive to run the program. Plus, just like the dress-like-a-panda surrogate program, it really produces some world-class adorable pictures.
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Where to See Bears (Even though pandas aren’t really bears)