I CAN hardly bear to confess this, but on New Year’s Eve I succumbed to the lure of Panda Babies on ITV, an exploration by the vet Steve Leonard of panda nurseries, playgroups, and “big schools” in China.
I have long had a sentimental attachment to giant pandas, as my friends know — my new calendars display full-colour pandas from January to December, and I have been known to wear a discreet panda badge in my lapel. It all goes with the black-and-white territory of Anglican choir dress. If I were a Buddhist, I would suspect that I had been a panda in another life, or was destined to be one in the future. If they still exist, that is.
I was deeply shocked when a friend suggested that pandas were no more than an evolutionary dead end; that we should not mourn their demise, as they were obviously too thick to survive. Solitary misfits, hopeless at breeding, stuck with a non-nutritious diet of bamboo, which they spend 16 hours a day consuming: it is hardly surprising that there are only 1600 left in the wild.
And yet I wonder whether these gorgeous cuddly bears are in fact destined to prove themselves as evolutionary exploiters of the highest order. Consider the facts. Just as domestic cats have learnt to imitate the cries of human babies, and thus ensure that their needs are taken care of, pandas have made themselves so attractive to human beings that we have become their parents, guardians, and carers.
In the nurseries of China, 22 pandas were born this year, many by artificial insemination. Pandas often have twins, one of whom is routinely rejected and left to die. Humans are now intervening to save the doomed twin. Humans have also invented panda cake, a rich, nutritious food that delivers more calories more efficiently than bamboo on its own. Humans are saving ill and injured pandas, and returning them to the wild.
The ultimate success of the panda’s survival instinct is that some baby pandas are being brought up by humans wearing panda suits, so that they can be prepared for life in the wild without ever having been exposed to humans who look like humans. It is becoming clear that these adorable beasts are adept at concealing their exceptional intelligence and ruthlessness.
Not only have they persuaded humans to look after them: they have also turned them into panda drones, carrying out the menial work of reproduction and food-provision, while they remain free for higher contemplation, climbing trees, spraying scent around their territory, and basking in our adoration.
I have seen the future, and it is black and white.