Opinion: Alas, there is no birthright citizenship for the San Diego Zoo’s giant pandas

Learning the ropes.
Giant panda cub Mei Sheng watches mom Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo as she munches on some bamboo in December 2003.
(Ken Bohn/ AFP/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine Southern California without giant pandas. Yet, sadly, the pandas that have become synonymous with the San Diego Zoo made their last public appearance on exhibit Monday and will leave for China sometime in the near future.

I’d say they were returning to their homeland — and it is for the panda Bai Yun, 27, who arrived in San Diego in 1996. But the other panda, her son, Xiao Liwu, 6, was born here in San Diego. Alas, there’s no birthright citizenship for pandas.

In fact, the contract under which the San Diego Zoo and the other three zoos in the U.S. that have pandas states that all the pandas here are on loan from China. Any offspring born here are sent to China around their third birthday. Xiao got to stay until he was 6. But they all go to China eventually. The 10-year contract with San Diego was extended to 23 years.

So they aren’t ours. Yet, they are.


We’ve been on panda baby watches, spent (or, some might say, wasted) hours watching the panda cam and become mesmerized by these bears that look like black and white stuffed toys come to life. The panda is the perfect antidote to life today — it’s not a lean, fast machine of any kind. It’s so deliciously Type … C. It just tumbles about, languid and unapologetically round, constantly eating. It deigns to mate but one or two days a year, saving its lust for solitary pursuits like more relaxing and eating.

In those past decades, two different adult males have come and gone. Bao Bao, meanwhile, has given birth to six cubs, the first by artificial insemination and the rest by her second mate, Gao Gao — who went back to China in October.

In the spring of 2000, I went to San Diego with my 2-and-a-half-year-old nephew and his mother, who was game for this adventure despite being eight months’ pregnant, to visit whichever little panda fur ball of hilarity was the cub of the moment. (A look through the archives indicates that it must have been Hua Mei.) We waited in line, talked in hushed voices (as the zoo staff instructed us all to do, lest we disturb the little one) and hoped the pandas wouldn’t wander off exhibit, as was their right, as we got to the front of the line. We were not disappointed. The baby gamboled with her mom and hung upside down from a low-hanging branch until she fell off and the crowd collectively let out a sotto voce “awww.” She scampered up and resumed playing.

We spent all these years in Southern California fostering them, and now China wants them?


I say: Don’t go! Resist! Do what frustrated tenants across California do when threatened with eviction: Lawyer up and fight to keep your home. (Do you really want to winter in China?) Don’t amble into the travel crate your keepers have, no doubt, spent months coaxing you to get accustomed to. Don’t walk in no matter how much bamboo they pack into it as a lure.

We forget how endangered pandas were two decades ago and how rare it was to have a cub born and survive. The San Diego Zoo’s giant panda conservation and research program did much to develop new techniques to decrease panda infant mortality. Negotiating a contract with China (the only supplier on Earth of the rare pandas) to get pandas is financially and politically challenging. Zoos reportedly hand over $1 million a year to China for conservation efforts for each year of a contract.

The San Diego Zoo says it has spent millions over the last 25 years furthering conservation efforts for pandas in China. Two decades ago, the wild population of pandas was estimated at under 1,000. In 2014, that number had gone up to more than 1,800. In 2016, the status of giant pandas was upgraded from endangered to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The San Diego pandas will go to a conservation and research center in China.

Los Angeles tried for pandas once, to no avail. Then-Mayor Jim Hahn attempted a panda deal on a 2002 trade mission to China. Instead, the Chinese offered us golden monkeys. Then the deal for the monkeys fell through too. Once San Diego’s pandas depart, only three zoos in the U.S. will still have pandas: the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo.

I checked the zoo’s panda cam one last time on Monday and there was a giant panda, gnawing on bamboo, lolling about, its rump covered in bits of grass. Again, I urge — just say no to China

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