Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Animal Magnetism

Sandra Parshall

I am hopelessly in love with a short, hairy guy who chews with his mouth open, still lives with his mother, and doesn’t know I exist. Oh, he’s glanced my way a couple of times when I’ve been -- yes, I admit it -- stalking him. But I’m just another face in the crowd. I share him with millions of other women and more than a few men.

Tai Shan, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, has been my favorite diversion since his birth on July 9, 2005. Between personal visits -- fortunately, I live near him -- he’s never more than a few mouse clicks away, and I visit him via the internet when I’m feeling frustrated, sad, or cranky. A scene isn’t coming together the way I envisioned it? Let’s see what Tai is up to on the zoo’s live panda cam. I’m a little queasy after writing a bloody murder scene or watching the latest bloody scenes from Iraq? Tai’s innocence and utter ignorance of human cruelty take me to a better place. His very name, Chinese for “peaceful mountain”, promises an oasis in a violent world.

It’s not that I lack furry Significant Others at home. Our cats, Emma and Gabriel, are more than happy to distract me from writing. They often insist on it. I didn’t need another animal in my life, yet I fell hard for Tai when he was a bald, squawking thing no bigger than a stick of butter. Now he’s 100 pounds of pure charm and I am addicted beyond recovery. I need to see him every day.

I also make daily visits to the web forum of Pandas Unlimited, a haven where pandamaniacs can indulge our passion without having our sanity questioned. Four U.S. zoos have pandas, and three of those -- Washington, San Diego, and Atlanta -- currently have cubs. (The Memphis Zoo may have one soon.) PU members know all the U.S. pandas’ genealogies, personalities, quirks, weights, and favorite treats. We watch them on the cams, worry about them and delight in them, visit them in person and share our pictures.

But Pandas Unlimited is more than a bunch of people who ooh and aah over the antics of cute critters. We put our money where our hearts are -- collectively, PU members have donated thousands of dollars to the panda programs at U.S. zoos and to organizations like Pandas International and World Wildlife Fund, which work to protect this critically endangered species and its wild habitat. PU is a diverse group of people united by a common love.

If you’ll excuse me, I have to check on Tai now. I’ll leave the floor open to anyone who wants to share a favorite source of comfort and spiritual renewal in this harsh, unforgiving world.


Pam G said...

You have the right of it, Sandra; Tai Shan, his cousin Su Lin in San Diego, and little Mei Lan in Atlanta are charming, amusing, soothing, amazing, and unbelievably cute. There's something about a one has been able to explain their allure and the effect they have on us, but many members of PU have testified that Panda-watching has relieved depression and grief and provided an uplift during their darkest moments. Perhaps some of it is watching how a 230-pound mother bear with fearsome claws and teeth handles an almost hairless baby no larger than a stick of butter. Perhaps a part of it is seeing 300 pounds of male Panda romping and rolling down a snow-covered hill or hanging by his hind legs from a tree, abandoning all of that male-bear dignity to just have fun. And maybe some of their magnetism is rooted in their rarity, their black-and-white beauty, and that they are now dependent on us, the most fearsome, cruelest predators on the planet, for their survival. We can only hope enough people care enough to save their habitat and them.

Carol said...

Some of my comforts:

The pandas (no surprise to Sandy -- she knows I'm a fellow addict)

Meerat Manor. Not a comfort I can get on demand, but Animal Planet's been running back to back reruns every Friday. If I'm home, I block out that hour for them.

Squirrels. I love hand-feeding the friendly ones walnuts.

Agatha Christie novels: Whenever the horrible secrets of Lord Flistbottom or Margaret (the illegimate child of the first gardner) were threatened, they murdered the blackmailer, or the poor sod who peeked in the window at the wrong time, instead of going on Dr. Phil. .

And, of course, dark chocolate. Lots of it.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I'm more attracted to polar bears. They are hilarious to watch on the snow and ice (from the comfort of my couch when they are on TV. No way am I going to visit where they live.)

We've made several trips to the Smoky Mountains and I'd love to see a black bear in the wilds, but alas, not so far.

Sandra Parshall said...

Lonnie, I'm very familiar with the Smoky Mtns. -- the most beautiful part of the south, IMO. Black bears are lovely animals and not dangerous unless you get between a mom and her cub(s).

Phyl said...

Sandra - What an eloquent description you have written of "our" Pandas and Pandas Unlimited!
Indeed as you have said, these extraordinary bears have shown us and our marvelous group of friends a world that is so incredibly different from our every day struggles...and so delightful! Every day, via the panda cams we have the opportunity to view a tiny cosmos unto its own where motherly love, adolescent hijinks and the miracle of birth are played out. We are blessed that the National Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, the Memphis Zoo and Wolong Giant Panda Preserve have given us the opportunity to tap into the lives of these remarkable animals via their cams - truly it is one of the great good things the internet has made possible for all of us who love pandas. Another fascinating aspect of panda watching and involvement is getting in on the cutting edge knowledge of the Giant Panda, both in captivity and in the wild. There is still so much not known about these elusive bears and learning along with the scientists and animal behaviorists and zoo curators has been fascinating!
We try not to forget, however, the ultimate goal of our panda support, and that is, of course, the hope that one day pandas will again be able to live and thrive again in the beautiful, misty mountains of Sichuan Province in China.

Holly said...

Right on, Phyl, Sandra, Pam G, Carol!!

I just have to say that I am hopelessy in love with Tai Shan. From the moment he hit that wall in the birthing den till now, I've barely missed a day in his life. I look at him now and sometimes my heart just overflows with pride and I cry such tears of joy - as if he were my very own child and I actually had a hand in his upbringing. How can this possibly be? I am truly blessed to have 'known' him, I have learned so much in the past 19 months about this species, met so many wonderful people who share the same interest and love - it just amazes me everyday.

BTW Sandra, I love your writing! I've never had the gift, but you seem to have it!! Don't ever stop.

Sandra Parshall said...

Holly, I couldn't stop writing if I wanted to. That is what marks the real writer -- you are driven to do it, you can't stop, even if success is many years in coming, as it was for me. I always tell unpublished writers that this is a difficult road they're on, and if they can stop and go in an easier direction without major trauma, they should. If they can't stop, they are true writers. Hmm. I see some definite parallels between writing and panda-watching! :-)

Anonymous said...

When my sister told a friend about Pandas Unlimited and all of our furry new heroes, this friend jokingly told us that it seemed we had joined a cult. Maybe it was the way our eyes lit up when we talked about Tai Shan, Su Lin, or Mei Lan. My cat, Rocky, even tries at times to distract me from my fixation on the panda web cams. I enjoy watching them and learning about them. I love to see the sheer joy they have at the simplest things, and that they are able to entertain themselves so easily. I think the laughter and joy that these precious pandas bring qualifies them as health care professionals. After all, laughter is the best medicine, and they dispense it expertly.

CrackerLilo said...

I second Phyl--I love your description. You're an awesome writer. I'm not a mystery fan, but I'm going to have to recommend your work to the mystery fans in my life, of which there are many.

They have such innocence, such joy, such pretty and expressive round faces, such cuddly-looking and solid bodies! I find them uplifting, too.

Aside from that, I find music, dancing, surfing, and swimming really comforting.

Judy Clemens said...

We have four -- count 'em -- four cats who share our house. They are like children in some ways, demanding attention when I'm trying to concentrate, but they are also a source of great coziness and comfort in the evenings when my brain is too fried to be creative anymore. The oldest is 14 and I dread the day she goes, even though she is a recluse and I don't even see her that often.

I don't know Tai -- I'll have to go check him out now!

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