Q&A with Laura Tangley

An interview with Laura Tangley, author of “Learning from Tai Shan” in the June 2006 issue of SMITHSONIAN.

You were just moonlighting for us -- you're a senior editor at National Wildlife magazine. What drew you to writing about wildlife conservation?

Well, I've loved animals all my life, and I've always worked either for a conservation organization, or for a publication where I write about natural history, or wildlife. I guess I've always had a particular affection for animals with scales or six legs, as opposed to the fuzzy and cute ones. I like animals that others find kind of despicable. Someone has to pay attention to the bugs.

So had you ever had any memorable experiences with pandas before writing about Tai Shan?

I'm sure I visited them at the zoo, but it wasn't memorable. I was never particularly into pandas before this. Which I guess was a surprising thing, since I've always liked animals. But I saw the over-the-top public reaction to this little guy, and I thought it was bizarre. When I was going to see him for the first time I was pretty dubious. I was thinking, well it's just going to look like any other baby animal. But then when I did see him I was pretty surprised by my reactions. He was extraordinarily cute! And my reaction kind of shocked me. Now, I only got to see him along with the public, so as a member of the crowd I reacted like everybody else did. And it was impossible not to smile and laugh, because he's so goofy! He'd stand up and take a few steps and fall down and get stuck between two things. He's just extremely cute, and extremely funny.

Have you talked to any of the panda cam addicts?

No, actually, but I started going on it for this story, because often when you go to the zoo he's either asleep or somewhere where you can't see him. The servers would sometimes be overloaded -- and this would be in the middle of the workday! I actually became a bit of an addict myself, but I kicked the habit.

What do you think it is about pandas that make them so much more addictive than other baby animals?

Well, I know what scientists say, which is that they remind us of human toddlers because they have big heads and round bodies, and they're clumsy and vulnerable, and humans are genetically programmed to respond to something with that sort of shape and behavior. But that doesn't explain my reaction, because I don't find human babies particularly appealing. I found him particularly appealing, even compared to other baby animals that I have seen and loved.

So have you been able to analyze your own reaction to him?

No, I don't know. It is some of those things that they say. But he reminded me more of Charlie Brown -- a cartoon character, with Gumby legs and that huge round head and a certain haplessness.

Do you think that their appeal has something to do with their vulnerability as a species? The thing that surprised me most in the article is how they aren't even that suited to eating the bamboo, when it's the only thing they eat. They seem almost counter-evolutionary.

It's bizarre. But it worked. They were there, and they had bamboo and there was plenty of it, and they ate all day -- and until they lost all their habitat it just worked for them to eat all day. They're kind of like sea turtles, which evolved to come out of the ocean and lay their eggs in sand.

It seems pretty dumb, certainly today it is because it's so dangerous for them, but I guess over millions and millions of years it was working. They were fine until humans started taking their habitat.

Could their appeal to humans be called an evolutionary adaptation? That we spend more money and attention on them because they're so much cuter than bugs or snakes?

Yeah, I was kind of surprised at the countless numbers of scientists and decades of research that had gone into producing this animal, although of course the benefits are for all pandas in captivity and pandas in the wild.

Does all this research into conserving pandas teach us about how to save other endangered species? Is this going be a strategy that could be used elsewhere?

Well, there is a limited amount of money, and I think the panda is going to stay a superstar. But zoo exhibits that explain why they're endangered will help teach a kid who's just crazy about Tai Shan -- which they all seem to be -- about what's happening to wildlife everywhere, what the problems are and what the solutions might be. They might not pay attention if it weren't an animal that they loved. Something that one of the scientists pointed out to me was that there are a lot of other creatures, including bugs and snakes, that live in the same habitat, so if people care about pandas it's going to help a lot of other species that aren't so popular.

So indirectly he'll be helping your scaly and six-legged creatures?


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