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Pandas provide warm, fuzzy television viewing

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Awwwww! Wook at the cute wittle panda!

There are plenty such moments in Animal Planet's "Meet the Pandas" (9 tonight). The one-hour special introduces American viewers to Mei Xiang (pronounced may-SHONG) and Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN), the pandas that came to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington in December after an 18-hour flight from China.

"Meet the Pandas" chronicles their journey, beginning several days before they left China as curators from the National Zoo traveled to the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, China.

It's an entertaining and informative hour, and depending on how you feel about cute, furry animals, it's filled with potentially heartwarming, [begin itals] isn't that adorable [end itals] scenes of the pandas playing.

"Meet the Pandas"

When: 9 tonight on Animal Planet.

Narrator: Stockard Channing.


The packaging of "Meet the Pandas" is almost as interesting as the show itself. I don't know which came first, but the presence of Stockard Channing (a k a the first lady on NBC's "The West Wing") combined with the "West Wing"-like opening credits and the designation of the pandas as "Washington's New Power Couple" gives the program a non-sequiturish political vibe.

Ah well, that's just the gloss. The meat of the hour concerns the purpose of bringing pandas to America, with Channing succinctly explaining the hope that "bear hugs could lead to bear cubs."

At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, a zoo curator and the chief panda keeper spoke about the unique coloration that makes pandas stand apart from the average bear.

"Scientists believe that the benefits of the coloration lie in the fact that they live in a forest habitat, and in the alternating patterns of shadow and light, they basically disappear," said Lisa Stevens, senior curator at the National Zoo. "Also, it may be that the black-exaggerated eye spots and the black on the ears serve some function in terms of social signaling."

Stevens, who is featured prominently in "Meet the Pandas," said the zoo's previous panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, provided a good foundation in panda social behavior. But there's still a lot of research to be done, especially in the wild.

"What we do not know is much about their natural history in the wild," Stevens said. "There have not been any sustained studies in the field to find out what they're doing out there."

But much has been learned about pandas in captivity, including different approaches to encouraging procreation.

"When we first received giant pandas at the National Zoo in 1972, the best advice at that time was that they were solitary animals and they should be kept separated and live apart until that special time of the year [when mating occurs]," Stevens said. "We followed that advice, and for 10 years Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing experienced a lot of aggression in their relationship. And it wasn't until we socialized them, out of the breeding season, that we began to achieve breeding success."

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian play together on a daily basis at the zoo.

"What we hope will happen is that they will breed at a younger age and breed successfully," Stevens said. "We won't have the hurdles we had with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing."

Already Tian Tian (his name means "more and more") and Mei Xiang ("beautiful fragrance") are displaying individual personality traits. Head panda keeper Brenda Morgan said the pandas recognize the sound of their names when called, but each reacts differently.

"They're always excited when they see us because we're going to feed them," Morgan said. "Mei Xiang is the first one to come when called on a regular basis. She'll be out there grazing on grass and you call her and she jumps up. ... Tian is more like, 'Well, I'm coming, but I'm busy, so I'll just come in a minute.'"

The pandas are on loan to the National Zoo for 10 years at a cost of $10 million from private donations. If any baby pandas are born, they too will become the property of China. Stevens said the deal works well for both nations.

"These two pandas were born at the China Research and Conservation Center and it's a very big center but a very crowded one," she said. "They currently have 44 pandas living there and space is rather restricted. By bringing them to the National Zoo, we have been able to bring them to a facility that was specially designed for them."

The money paid to China is designated to support conservation programs, Stevens said.

"While we're all engaged with having Tian Tian and Mei Xiang at the National Zoo," she said, "we must remember that this is part of a long-term effort to make sure we're supporting sound conservation programs in China."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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