The 'cute response' at work

The National Zoo's two new pandas elicit symphonies of adoring oohs and aahs -- and, zoo keepers hope, support for species preservation.

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January 14, 2001|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,Special to the Sun

Kids cut school, adults skipped out of work, and even seasoned keepers at the National Zoo in Washington couldn't help but get swept up in the panda-monium this week as Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, those cuddly black-and-white bears, were introduced to an adoring public.

The pandas, whose sprawling, $1.8 million renovated home nearly rivals the cost of the Washington abode recently bought by Bill and Hillary Clinton, are expected to more than pay for their keep: Their playful presence is expected to increase the number of visitors to the zoo by 20 percent annually.

Which begs the question: What do pandas have that a yak or an armadillo lacks?

We turned to zoo spokesperson Bob Hoage for a few insights:

What was the scene like when the pandas first met the public this past week?

It was very exciting. We heard a lot of oohs and aahs as they tussled and chased each other.

Were other zookeepers sneaking peeks, too?

Oh, yes. We had a day just before the opening when we invited all the staff to come and see them, but I still see a number of keepers drifting by during lunch hour.

Tell us about the different personalities of the pandas.

Mei Xiang is 2 1/2 years old, and she's more like a cub in a sense. She's about 140 pounds. [Tian Tian] is getting closer to being full-grown. He's 215 pounds. We expect them to put on 50 or 60 more pounds apiece.

Right now in their wrestling matches she is a bit of an underdog, so she squeals when he's getting the best of her, but when he relinquishes she comes right back at him. She seems particularly interested when he finds a choice piece of bamboo in taking it away from him. She'll start eating the other end of it and then try to tug it away from him. Sometimes he relinquishes it, and sometimes he doesn't.

Why are people so crazy about pandas?

A scientist in the '50s actually studied this and mapped out the "cute response." Baby animals among many species have characteristics that elicit a protective and nurturing response from adults. Some characteristics that elicit the cute response from human beings are large rounded heads, large eyes, and small snouts or withdrawn snouts -- small noses and chins. Pandas are so charismatic, and one reason is they have a lot of these characteristics.

The irony of why their heads are so rounded is because their jaw muscles are so large they come all the way around to the top of the head. In many ways, they're reminiscent of human toddlers: They sit up while they eat, and they have a grasping forepaw. ... It's like a toddler with a little furry mitten on. Pandas have short stubby limbs like human toddlers, and when they walk they appear to humans to be a little clumsy though in fact they're not. They're quick on their feet, agile and flexible.

All of these characteristics taken together elicit the cute response and make them incredibly charismatic and attractive to humans.

That all sounds very scientific. Tell the truth, you adore them, too, don't you?

They're absolutely charming. But we also want to emphasize that they're conservation ambassadors for many species. Having them on exhibit is one facet of the program ... to save the giant pandas. We hope by having them here, the public will be interested in and support our efforts.

Zoo Views

If you love pandas but can't get to Washington's National Zoo, you can still visit them online.

Following the lead of other zoos like the San Diego Zoo, which has been featuring its 17-month-old female Hua Mei via a "panda cam," the National Zoo has created its own online peek at its new pandas.

In its newly renovated panda "environment," the National Zoo has installed 20 motion-sensitive cameras to track Mei Xiang and Tian Tian as they move about their new home. Like a television director, an automatic system or a zoo staffer will choose which view to broadcast over the zoo's two PandaCam channels.

While the site certainly has panda fans in mind, the zoo takes pains to point out that the cameras also serve a scientific purpose, helping researchers study panda behavior.

Where to find pandas online:

National Zoo:

http: / / natzoo.si.edu / zooview / exhibits / panda

San Diego Zoo:

www.sandiegozoo.org / special / pandas / pandacam / index.html

Zoo Atlanta:

www.zooatlanta.org / pandacam.html

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