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Agenda: Pandas are the hapless victims of the zoo community's exploitation

In a wait-and-watch reminiscent of the birth of the royal baby, Edinburgh Zoo is promoting the pregnancy of panda Tian Tian like the arrival of the Second Coming.

But unlike Prince George, any panda baby that survives will live a far-from-glamorous life.

The zoo community's exploitation of one of the world's most "aww"-inspiring animals has been a marketing bonanza. Since the launch of the "rent-a-panda" programme in the 1970s, the public has been manipulated into believing that they must see this specific species.

Zoos barter, beg and negotiate to display pandas and their babies, which bring in millions of paying visitors. The original intent of the programme - habitat preservation in China - has become an afterthought.

Pandas are sensitive and shy animals which, if left alone, shun contact with humans. Their soulful eyes disguise the suffering they endure when they are carted around from zoo to zoo as profitable marketing tools. Besieged by an onslaught of visitors, artificially and invasively bred and denied their freedom, the bears are the only ones not reaping benefits from the hoopla that surrounds them.

After titillating stories about love tunnels, hormone changes and mood music were released by Edinburgh Zoo (which garnered months of free publicity but failed to override the detrimental impact of captivity on the natural desire of animals to breed), the zoo went ahead and artificially inseminated Tian Tian. It appears of little concern to zoos that invasive artificial insemination procedures are stressful for the animals.

Like all bears, panda mums are protective and nurturing. But the conditions of China's loan programme require that cubs be returned "home" within two years of birth. Treated as commodities, the young pandas and their mothers will probably never see each other again.

In China's breeding centres, cubs are typically taken from mothers before they reach six months of age in order to force females to go into estrus again (the period in the sexual cycle of female mammals during which they are in heat). And that in itself is far from simple, as female pandas are only fertile for a day or two.

Is it any wonder that captive pandas are such notoriously poor breeders? Miscarriages are common, and infant mortality is high. A panda cub born recently at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, was missing part of an upper skull, brain, eyes and jaw. Only one captive-bred panda has been released back into the wild, an unfortunate animal that lived only about a year. Breeding pandas in captivity is all about the money. The merchandising alone brings in millions.

Edinburgh Zoo is paying China £600,000 a year to display Tian Tian and Yang Guang and will pay an estimated £320,000 for each surviving cub. Just imagine what impact that money could actually have to help pandas in their habitat. Unless aggressive action is taken to curtail illegal logging, protect forested bamboo (which makes up 99% of a panda's diet) and stop development in the limited wild habitat left for pandas, all hope of saving wild pandas will be lost.

What do visitors actually "get" when they spend a few minutes outside a panda's cage? They see an animal in an artificial habitat far removed from the mist-cloaked mountain ranges where they belong. Visitors leave with pictures and souvenirs, but the pandas' chances of ever returning home are infinitesimally small. Portraying these displays as offering any kind of natural history education is akin to trying to quench someone's thirst by showing them a picture of a glass of water.

Someday, Prince George will be king. But any panda born in captivity will forever be a serf subjected to the whims and wishes of human masters. Every purchase of a zoo ticket perpetuates these animals' far-from-noble existence.

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