Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006
Buttersticks:The National Zoo in Washington doesn't get as much attention as its sister institution across town. But in recent years, the zoo has done its best to match Congress scandal for scandal: lax oversight, multiple cover-ups, millions of taxpayer dollars squandered, ruinous mismanagement and neglect, a pattern of botched mating attempts with the whole world watching.
Last month, the zoo opened a new Asia Trail designed to showcase its most bankable asset, the giant pandas, in their 40,000-square-foot Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat. The $53-million project is part of an ambitious facelift by the zoo's new director, who wants to build "the world's finest zoo."
When the new trail opened, the Washington Post cooed over the antics of Fujifilm Giant Panda cub Tai Shan, the first surviving panda cub to be born at the zoo, who has been its top attraction since his birth last year. The Post reported that Tai Shan sparked a $1.6-million jump in merchandise sales in the first half of 2006, and the paper's eyewitness reporting showed why: "The cub snuffled through the underbrush as he hunted for a carrot, which he then devoured, licking his lips, as camera shutters whirred. Afterward, he climbed a cork tree and hugged it."
In the very next paragraph, however, the Post dropped a bombshell in what may be Washington's biggest and most ominous scandal yet:
"As part of an agreement with China, which lent Tai Shan's parents to the zoo, the cub is set to be returned to that country this summer after his second birthday."
In other words, this proud nation of ours—once master of its own destiny—is now renting itself out to have a rich totalitarian's babies.
For decades, millions of panda lovers have held their breath through the pandas' unpredictable and star-crossed attempts to mate. Time after time, thousands of schoolchildren wept when a surprised mother panda would give birth to a tiny cub, only to watch it die days later.
Thousands more voted in the zoo's suspiciously undemocratic Internet contest to choose the name Tai Shan ("Peaceful Mountain") from a list of five prescribed alternatives, each sanctioned by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. That list included two virtually identical and unappealing duds—Sheng Hua ("Washington China") and Hua Sheng ("China Washington")—and left out the cub's adorable American nickname, Butterstick ("Little Tub").
The zoo's website didn't bother to tell those young American stooges—most of them taking part in democracy for the first time—that they would all be invited back in 2007 to watch as the U.S. puts the cub on a Swift Boat to China.
According to the Post, "Zoo officials hope that they can breed the parents again this spring and that the roomy new habitat will increase chances for a second cub." The article doesn't say whether China will get to steal that young panda as well, in flagrant violation of its own one-child policy.