WASHINGTON - The Truman Show is now playing at the National Zoo, and it's a hit.
But this time the star is not Jim Carrey, portraying a man living in a manufactured city populated by actors pretending to be his family, his every move captured on camera and beamed around the world. No, the star now is a baby panda that doesn't even have a name but has already won a place on the computer desktops, and in the hearts, of thousands.
"Oh my God, he's so cute," said Beth Lacey Gill, a publications specialist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, who logs onto the panda's Web site daily. "I just like to check in. I like watching how quickly he's growing."
The baby panda was born July 9 to Mei Xiang, a giant panda on loan to the National Zoo from China. On the day of the cub's birth, 86,000 hits were recorded on the zoo's panda Web site. The panda cam was turned on July 10, and by the next day the site had received 637,000 visitors.
That noise you heard was the sound of work grinding to a halt across America. (In fact, it took 30 minutes just to write that sentence. The panda cub was stretching. We make no apologies.) Eating lunch at your desk? Watch the panda cam. Stuck on hold? Watch the panda cam.
But go to the zoo? No baby panda to see. The mother and cub are being kept in the indoor panda habitat - off-limits to visitors - while they get to know each other. Only the father is on exhibit, mostly eating and sleeping, but that hasn't stopped thousands from trekking to the National Zoo anyway.
Oddly, in this hyper-connected, wired world, the zoo is one of the few places where you can't see the panda cub. That can only be done online.
Through cameras mounted in the zoo's indoor panda habitat, the world has watched Mei Xiang nurse her cub, cradle him, clean him and play with him. We watched her leave her baby for the first time. We watched the cub - now 6.2 pounds and 10 inches long - roll on the floor, engage in movements similar to sit-ups and crawl over his mother's face. And just last week, we watched him open his eyes.
"When he gets on the school bus for the first time, it's going to be crazy," joked Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. He attributes the pandas' popularity partially to their utter adorability but also to the fact that they are the ultimate reality TV stars, yet totally oblivious to the cameras.
"The problem with reality TV is that everybody knows they're on TV and their behavior is changed," Thompson said. "Here we're seeing the subjects completely guileless because they have no concept of what a camera is. There's a sense that they haven't seen every episode of Zoo Cam, so they're not mugging for the cameras."
Mei Xiang's den, where most of the action takes place, is a square room with dingy white walls and a center platform where the mother panda takes her naps. The cub stays on the floor surrounded by nesting material, and is often visited by his mother, who likes to pick him up with her mouth, cradle him against her chest and then roll over onto her back, with the cub on top of her.
It is precious beyond belief.
The remote-controlled cameras are mounted high on the walls, where the pandas can't reach them. Indeed, the animals do not seem to have even noticed the cameras. Extra cameras were placed in the zoo's panda habitat in anticipation of the cub's arrival.
"If we can install a camera they don't know about and it causes them no stress or discomfort, then that's what we're all about - showing the public how this happens and making them care," said zoo spokeswoman Peper Long. "It's hard to look at this and not care."
And while the panda cam can sometimes appear almost artistic - such as close-ups of the mother nuzzling the cub or shots framing the mother against a painted mountain backdrop meant to resemble the wilds of China - Long insists science is the primary objective of the cameras. Volunteers record the pandas' behavior and use the cameras to help them see what's going on.
"This is not an attempt to create a docudrama," Long said. "It's really based on the behavior that Mei Xiang and Tian Tian [the father] and the cub are displaying at the time and how they can best view that to describe it in a science report."
All the same, it's been hugely popular. The panda cam on the zoo's Web site can only accommodate 600 users at one time, so visitors are directed to the Animal Planet Web site, which is streaming the live feed from the zoo. Since July 10 - when the cub first appeared on camera - the site has received 1.7 million hits. On Monday, 47,000 people logged on to watch the mother and her cub wrestle, eat and sleep.
"We got an e-mail from a defense contractor working in the Baghdad/Tikrit area saying thank you so much for putting this up," Long said. "They said it was a real connection to home and a bright spot in their day."