* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column first ran in 2007. Pandacam at the San Diego Zoo still operates, but this August no baby is expected from repeat parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao. Due to age and health issues, they may no longer be able to breed.
I was among the people who followed Hua Mei’s birth as if it were a moon landing. If you don’t remember who she is, she is the giant panda that was born at the San Diego Zoo in August 1999, the first cub to survive to adulthood in America.
I was one of her biggest fans. Several times a day I clicked onto the grainy “pandacam” Web site which showed live video of the baby, and I wrote a breathless column about the experience. I loved watching the little one grow, especially since pandas begin as hairless lumps the size of a cell phone and turn into everyone’s favorite teddy bear.
But then I went missing.
I didn’t know that the San Diego mom, Bai Yun, had second and third babies, and I only picked up news of a fourth cub because I visited San Diego last month.
According to an Aug. 25, 2007, article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, I’m not the only one who is neglecting the new cub.
Zookeepers are on the job as always, but we, the public, have dropped the ball. We’re treating the new baby like a fourth child.
Traffic went up on the zoo Web site after the delivery on Aug. 3, but it was a mere whisper compared to the “panda-monium” of fall 1999 when so many people checked on Hua Mei each morning that the 8-9 a.m. period was dubbed “rush hour.”
As the numbers of baby pandas went up, the excitement went down, according to reporter Jeanette Steele. In her story, she compares the ho-hum reaction to the fourth cub to what happens in human families, where the first child fills photo albums and Web sites, and No. 4 gets the armless Barbie.
She concludes, “Frankly, this panda would have to sprout horns to cause the same national excitement as Hua Mei.”
Reading this, I felt guilty.
I did visit the updated giant panda exhibit at the zoo, where the baby isn’t on display yet, and I do tune into pandacam (following links from www.sandiegozoo.org) but not often. The new baby is cute, no question, but she looks and acts like the first one.
So Steele is right: I’m taking less interest in the new panda. Then I realized that this might have happened with my own children, too.
Readers of this column probably think so, because I have written more often about my daughter than my son. The reason, however, is not what you might think. My daughter was comfortable with being the subject of columns, even while in high school, but my son was not.
Proof of favoritism does not lurk in my columns, but it’s easy to find around my house. I snapped photos of both children, but fewer of my son and usually my daughter is in those pictures, too. My son’s baby book starts well but trails off sooner. I’ve saved toys, but most of them are the high-end plush animals people gave my first child.
I’m appalling similar to panda team leader Donald Lindburg who said, “We are still (excited) to some degree, but, you know, we’ve been there a couple of times now, and we have a better sense of what to expect.”
Even Bai Yun is reportedly less attentive to her fourth cub. “With Hua Mei, she was a lot more on the alert,” said zookeeper Kathy Hawk.
My behavior, I conclude, is normal. I expect it doesn’t scar the psyches of pandas, but what about human children?
Happily, the human story has a different ending. True, we send fewer bouquets to second-time parents, and, true, the parents themselves are not as totally engrossed. For one thing, they need to care for their other children, something pandas don’t face.
More important: As human children get older, differences emerge.
I think of my verbal daughter and my musical son, her passion for novels, his for jazz. I think of the way she demonstrated her love in words and art projects, while he helped me with my computer and buried me in warm sand at the beach.
Now they are young adults with different quirks, different talents, different lessons to teach me about parenthood and about life.
This is the amazing gift we humans have been given. Genetic variation creates differences among people that are far greater than anything we observe in pandas. In fact, the most remarkable thing about pandas is how much they look alike.
So although we may fuss less when a second or third baby arrives, the attachment grows stronger as each child differentiates from the one before and becomes loved and valued for his or her own special traits.
How lucky we humans are.
And we get to watch pandacam, too.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org