Why do some people smirk condescendingly at the very notion of “older” women loving animals? More often than not, when I read or hear news stories about grown women doing extraordinary things out of devotion to animals, I detect the word that remains unwritten and unspoken: crazy. When the public starts commenting on those stories, the word pops up a lot, along with nutcase and idiot and so forth.
Recently I saw yet another display of such a reaction, and this time it felt personal. Four members of Pandas Unlimited, a grassroots group that supports giant panda conservation efforts and is based on Flickr, traveled to Bifengxia Panda Base in China to visit Tai Shan nearly eight months after he left the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC. They weren’t the first Tai Shan fans to visit him at Bifengxia, and they certainly won’t be the last, but a reporter and photographer for the Washington Post happened to be there at the same time, so they were interviewed and photographed for the Post.
I was delighted with the coverage in general because I appreciate anything that brings attention to efforts to save the critically endangered giant panda species. But I could have done without the tone of the lead paragraph, which started, “For four middle-aged American women...” The story went on to describe the volunteer work the women paid to do for almost a week: cleaning Tai’s yard and indoor room, hauling heavy freshly cut bamboo into his enclosure, and hand-feeding treats to their favorite bear. The word never appeared in the story, but I sensed it lurking between the lines. Crazy.
Members of Pandas Unlimited know how to turn an implied slur into a compliment. We’re not all middle-aged women, but we’ve embraced the concept of the MAW who will do anything to help animals. My friend M-Lou came up with a banner for the MAW’s animal welfare movement.
Some Chinese visitors to Bifengxia were amazed to see American women doing the kind of work usually done by the most impoverished in Chinese society, and astonished to learn they’d paid for the privilege. It’s a common arrangement, though. Many foreigners have paid to work with the pandas because they love the animals and want to feel that they’ve personally contributed to their welfare. (The money goes into the panda base’s budget to help pay for food, housing, and medical care for the bears.) But when four middle-aged American women do what a legion of others have done, it’s news. The story was picked up all over the internet and by many newspapers and TV stations, and in each case that I’m aware of, the term “middle-aged women” was right there in the opening line.
Are we supposed to put aside our capacity for loving another species just because we’ve grown older? Are we supposed to feel ashamed of loving a particular animal that has made us smile and laugh and forget our human troubles for the hours we’ve spent watching him grow up? Does middle-aged womanhood demand that we care only about our own species? Why doesn’t anyone make fun of actor Jackie Chan? He loves pandas so much that he travels with a couple of panda plush toys that he uses to start discussions about the plight of the species. I haven’t seen any references to his age in the stories about his conservation work.
I know the four women whose visit to Tai Shan became such a big news story. (One is Elise, whose photos of Tai in China I’m using here.) They’re responsible career women with full lives. It’s sad to see people calling them insane in the comments section of the Post website. Again and again, those who left comments asked why these silly middle-aged white women didn’t give their money to charities that benefit people. How strangers can presume so much knowledge of anyone's personal life and giving habits is beyond me. Besides, do they ask that of people who spend thousands of dollars to go to Hawaii and lie on the sand for two weeks?
All of us in Pandas Unlimited love Tai. Anybody who ever spent two minutes in his presence or watching him on the zoo’s panda cam couldn’t help falling for him hard. We loved seeing him grow up during the four and a half years he was at the National Zoo with his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. We wept when he went to China, and we worried that no one there would love him the way we do. Going to China to see Tai has been a thrilling adventure for a number of Pandas Unlimited members already, and others are planning their trips.
But it’s not just about being close to a beloved bear and knowing that he’s loved and cared for. Tai represents the beauty and innocence that mankind has come close to destroying on our planet. This charismatic young bear, just by being himself, brought to wildlife conservation many people who had never before cared about the relentless human destruction of habitat around the globe. Since Tai was born, PU members have donated thousands of dollars in his honor to the National Zoo’s conservation work. We have adopted Wen Yu, a young female panda at Bifengxia, providing regular donations to pay for her food and medical care. When Tai went to Bifengxia, we paid for state-of-the-art ultrasound equipment to help the veterinarians there diagnose and treat illness and monitor panda pregnancies.
Call us crazy if you want to. Drag our age into it if you think that proves your point. But Luo Bo, the vice-director of panda care at Bifengxia, is grateful for our love of the bears and glad the four recent visitors from the U.S. received so much attention. Abuse of animals–horrifying abuse involving highly endangered species in many cases–is still prevalent in China, and the concept of animal rights has barely taken hold. “When you are poor you only worry about what you will eat, where you will sleep,” Luo told the Post. “Things like animal rights are considered a luxury. But that’s changing in China. If the Chinese see just how much these foreigners are able to love a single panda, perhaps they will start loving animals too.” And the world will be a better place because of that.