San Diego can give up its hopes of producing a sister panda cub to Washington D.C.’s Bao Bao in the near future. Both of the San Diego Zoo’s pandas have encountered health issues that make it unlikely that either will work as half of a breeding pair again. The male panda has lost one testicle to cancer and has a heart condition; the female has probably hit menopause.
Of course, these new setbacks only represent a marginal increase in difficulty for the breeding program; the major obstacle remains the pandas themselves. San Diego’s pair are the only pandas in the United States who have managed to reproduce naturally. Zoos appear to have stocked their pens with pandas of the Bartleby variety, who would prefer not to reproduce, despite zookeepers attempts to show the pandas porn, artificially inseminate pandas with the sperm of deceased males, and even build obstacles into the panda pens, in the hopes that the female will trip over them and fall into proper breeding position.
Even when these attempts succeed, pandas have a tendency to neglect or accidentally suffocate the cubs they manage to produce. The baby pandas that survive remain the property of the Chinese government, forcing a kind of sterility on any panda breeding project.
While we struggle to keep captive pandas alive, next week the World Health Organization will decide whether to definitively wipe another species from the earth, one considerably more dangerous. On May 19th, the WHO will vote on a recommendation that Russia and the United States destroy their remaining stores of smallpox. Smallpox has been completely eradicated, so, if the samples were destroyed, it would be nearly impossible for the disease to ever recur as the result of accidental breach or bioterrorism. However, destroying the disease stocks would preclude any further research.
Peter Jahrling, the chief scientist at the National Institute of Health’s NIAID Integrated Research Facility has been using our national stores of smallpox to infect monkeys with the disease, in order to develop new vaccines for humans. His research, and that of other scientists trying to learn how to contain this and similar plagues, would be cancelled if the smallpox reserves were destroyed.
There is no smallpox equivalent of the panda cams; almost no one can quickly picture the delicate, football-shaped smallpox capsids in the way we can call up images of roly-poly pandas. Smallpox preservation is plainly intended to serve the good of humans alone, and no larger environmental cause. There’s nothing particularly noble or aesthetically compelling about the cause.
Panda preservation should fall into the same category. Zoos are not conserving the panda for the sake of the panda but for the entertainment of the human spectators. Pandas in captivity could not sustain themselves, and there is little hope they can be trained to carry on their species without intervention. Any conservationist who praises themselves for “saving” the panda must recognize that the zoo breeding programs do little more than animate the corpse of the species.
The smallpox stockpiles fall more naturally under the the project of “conservation” than that of panda preservation. Smallpox reserves and research are meant to conserve the existence of humans. Pandas are more similar to the destructively bred bulldog, which also is incapable of reproducing on its own. If zoos wish to keep pandas around, they should admit it is for the sake of humans, not the pandas themselves.