Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MAWs for Paws

Sandra Parshall

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. 


Bow'tai'ed said...

WOW Sandy, what an excellent blog. Thank you, not only for the honor of using my pictures, but setting the record straight on what us 'MAWS' are trying to accomplish.

Laurie said...

Great post! You've definitely touched a nerve with me. I'm so bored with the smirks, etc. when I'm talking with someone and they discover that I'm a divorced MAW (the MAW part is apparent,no discussion necessary to reveal that, lol) and have a cat. I hear things like, "Oh, you'd better not get anymore than the one. or you'll be The Cat Lady." or just plain, "Oh, "A Cat Lady."

Ugh, I find it really annoying and rude.

Sandra Parshall said...

Laurie, I'm proud to be a "cat lady" and feel sorry for anyone who lacks the emotional capacity to love animals. Someone once said that you can judge a society by the way it treats animals. I believe you can judge individuals the same way. This planet isn't the exclusive property of humans, to destroy at our pleasure. If we share it, we make it a better place for all species.

Lorna G. Poston said...

Great post. I am middle-aged and an animal lover. (I feed and care for homeless cats). The town I live in knows this, and they whisper behind my back. They call me the Crazy Cat Lady, yet they dump more on my porch for me to care for.

Animals are God's creation. He even made them before He made humans, and the Bible says we are to take care of them. I don't know why so many people are blind to that.

Joni langevoort said...

Amen! I fail to understand why someone would feel the need to criticize any of this, but I admit I've heard it before. The simple act of donating to an animal rescue site or a local shelter will get some people up in arms. I just don't get it. Perhaps if we ONLY thought of animals, that might be a problem, but my experience is that people who care about animals tend to have a caring nature in general...

Ingrid King said...

I'm proud to be middle-aged, and I love cats. Does that make me a cat lady? I'm sure in some peoples' eyes, it does. Does it make me crazy? Of course not. Does it bother me? Heck, no.

I've never given much thought to what other people think, and I'd venture to say that I'm probably happier than most of the people making derogatory comments about middle-aged women who love animals. I've always felt that if you have to put someone else, or an entire group of people, down, it says more about the person who's being derogatory, than the person being talked about.

Sandra Parshall said...

Ingrid, I certainly hope you love animals, since you're a veterinarian. :-) I've met one or two vets whose love of animals seemed questionable, but most treat their patients with more love and care than many MDs show their human patients. Our cat Gabriel likes our vet so much he kisses her!

Peg Brantley said...

I thought immediately about Betty White.

I should live so long.

Vicki Lane said...

Good post, Sandy! And if you think MAWs don't get no respect, just wait till you're an OW -- with or without animals.

Pat Brown said...

"Middle-age women" have 2 things going against them. They're women in a society that has no use for any woman who isn't beautiful and they're not young.

It's sad that people can't see past age. It's good that they're giving the panda some headline space, but to belittle them because they'll spend their money doing this is wrong.

I can't imagine a world where no one cared for the animals we're driving to extinction. Bravo for MAW -- I love Mawfia. Priceless! -- and my they continue their good work.

Sandra Miller said...

Being a white cane carrying blind MAW I am forced to work around the additional "handicapped" label, plus middle aged tag, with a big dollop of "eccentric" added in just to try to make my "condition" sound!

My best way of dealing with it is to literally kill them with kindness and a sense of humor, and act oblivious to the smirks, jabs and stares (BTW I personally experience this far more in the US than other countries).

If only those people could have such blessings in their lives as this exclusive MAW society, with our love and respect for animals and intangible connection to them.

I ran out of energy to be annoyed or mad at these people who don't "get it". I just feel sorry for them and hope some of our MAW passion will rub off on them eventually..if not... its THEIR LOSS.


Sue Curran said...

Who's an idiot? Pandas are beautiful, complex creatures who need everyone's support.
All I have to say is they're numbskulls for knocking 'MAWS' and their efforts.

lil Gluckstern said...

How wonderful the work is that MAWS do, and I think that all these rude youngsters are in for a shock. The alternative to getting older is not very pleasant. I love seeing pictures of Tai; I remember watching the zoo cam because he was so delightful. BTW, I used to have 5 cats, and you guessed it, I was the Cat lady. I only have one now, but since she follows me around like a dog (she has an identity issue), I'm still the cat lady. Great post, and great comments.

Holly (Loves_TaiShan) said...

Well, I can say with certainty that I am NOT crazy. I am an animal lover, plain and simple. Being 'middle aged' has no bearing and I had a hard time reading that WAPO article the day it appeared. ugh! Thanks to Tai Shan, I have learned so many things about animal conservation and the plight of many endangered species. If I was physically and financially able, I'd be on a plane to BFX, paying to work with the pandas just like Elise and many other 'panda' friends I have made since his birth. Yes, they mean that much to me. Always will. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Sandra. The best way to treat a slur is to turn it around, embrace it and empower it. It stops being a slur and becomes a banner we call all fly. Nothing wrong with being a MAW. They run the world!
(from ffleur)

ponceypix said...


This proud MAW thanks you for your absolutely perfect commentary on this double-standard issue. Non-MAWs may think we're insane but I find it rather insane that they asuume that it means that all we have left at this stage of our lives is loving animals. We MAWs are genuinely caring women who lead productive and full lives - professionals, artists, etc. who have careers, families, diverse interests and yes, a love for animals. I will stand up for pandas, cats and other animals any day compared to some of the inane activities some people embrace. Thank you, Sandra!

Unabashed, middle-aged Panda Fan said...

As a fly on the wall, I think the four women had something to do w the presence of the Post reporter; not a coincidence. Having seen the group picture, it also appears there were some middle-aged men in the group. But the "story" was about the visit of some of Tai's most avid "aunties."

Group members were said to be very content viewing and tending to all the other amazing pandas at the Base, not just Tai. In years of being panda-focused and spending time at plenty of zoos, I have never met a truly self-conscious panda fan. We are proud of our interest and enjoy ourselves.

And middle-aged is not a tag to be ashamed of; most of us wear it proudly. Sure, America is a hyped, youth culture, but so what? Why be self conscious if you are contentedly middle-aged and can spend a lot of time with pandas?

Finally, a reader would quite plausibly think that the Post reporter intended no sting by using the term. His account seems pretty even-handed, knowing that zealous panda people can be a handful and a tad zaney. Who cares? And many PU members had positive initial reactions to the article, judging by their posts. The sting, in an understandable, good-natured way, may be more in the inference than the reporter's implication. Make sense? Relax and just enjoy pandas.

Diane said...

Hey, if I'm crazy, then so be it. What others think of me matters less to me - a whole lot less - than how I care for both my animals, and those in the wild. And just maybe those who don't are the crazy ones. Delusions of (self) grandeur. Humans are, after all, just another animal species. And not always the best species at that!

Linda O. Johnston said...

I'm proud to be an animal lover! Those who might choose to make fun of that are the ones who are crazy. Kudos to Pandas Unlimited.

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