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.