October 2, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich
Is it possible that you’ve missed the big, viral, news about the government shutdown? Apparently, the National Zoo’s panda cam (a live stream of panda life in captivity) has been deemed a non-essential cost and has “gone dark”. The National Zoo has more than a dozen cameras, honing in on creatures like octopi. But the panda cam, giving visitors constant exposure to the lifeworld of a large mammal, is the one whose loss Americans are mourning. This, in addition to the fact that the National Zoo itself is not open to visitors. The story has, since yesterday, been over-reported in all the major news media outlets. CBS News took to Facebook, to uncover choice quotes expressing dismay. Apparently one Caitlin Bauer observed that “A world without the panda cam is a world without happiness.” Lauren Jenkins directed her concern at the government itself, “Congress, get your act together. For the love of the baby panda.”
This has, naturally, also given rise to backlash. In the words of CBS News, this seems to be an instance of “loving animals” while “hating politics.” It seems, on the surface, to be yet another example of humans who care more about the life of animals than fellow human beings. On Twitter, Sarah Kenzidor pointed to the irony that media outlets such as the New York Times saw fit to cover the panda cam story, while remaining silent on the fact that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) wasn’t going to be issuing payments during the shutdown. It would appear, in other words, that the Times is more concerned about assuring Americans that animals in the National Zoo will be fed. Hungry human mothers and babies, on the other hand…
This is, perhaps, the clearest possible illustration of the absurdity of this viral news story. But is this lament about the “darkness” of the panda cam really about “loving animals”?
Last week the big news about zoos was the UK ban on animal prints, particularly leopard print. Park administration has noted that this fabric tends to cause confusion among various animals. Apparently, they want to make zoo life a little bit easier. What goes unstated, in the piece, is the fact that human presence in the life of zoo animals can be unpleasant, disconcerting, confusing. Discovery News is actually suggesting that the government shutdown is good for animals: with the closure of the National Zoo, they basically get a vacation from us.
All of this is mostly just to ask: isn’t the commotion over the panda cam, and the closure of the National Zoo, more about humans feeling deprived of their animal fix and less about “loving animals”? OK, sure, concerns about whether animals in the zoo are going to be fed during the shutdown is one thing. But the panda cam was never meant to be for the pandas, anyhow. At best, it’s an educational tool for those who are interested in panda behavior. For most people, however, it’s a tool to give them access to animal images in real time. A new study from Hiroshima University tests what researchers are calling the “power of kawaii”: the power that cuteness (kawaii) exercises over human behavior. Apparently, looking at images of cute animals increases worker productivity. After looking at images of baby animals, task completion improved by about 12%. Looking at cute animals, in other words, seems to have an effect not entirely dissimilar to drinking a cup of coffee. Encouraging the government to get its act together “for the love of the baby panda” isn’t so much for the love of the panda as it is for the love of voyeuristic access to the life of the baby panda.