Pandamonium: How Giant Pandas Became So Popular In The West

Giant Pandas are fast replacing the dragon as the symbol of China to Westerners. Here is the story of these bears' journey to the West.

Giant Pandas are fast replacing the dragon as the symbol of China to Westerners.

Stuffed Giant Pandas At The San Diego Zoo.
Stuffed Pandas At The San Diego Zoo.

Giant Pandas – also known simply as pandas or panda bears – are ubiquitous in modern popular culture.

Think panda plushies, strollers, accessories, murals, bags, or toys; they are everywhere you can think of. This animal is also one of the first things people think of when considering the wildlife of China.

In the eyes of the rest of the world, pandas are fast replacing the dragon as the symbol of China.

And, it’s not just on the streets of China. Images of pandas are now commonplace in most urban parts of of the world. It’s therefore interesting to realize that these creatures weren’t always so popular in the West.

So, how did they come to be this familiar to Westerners, then? In this post, we’re going to take a look at just that.

History Of Giant Pandas In The West

Naturally, it makes sense to begin our story with the first Westerner’s encounter with a panda bear.

This occurred in 1869 when a French priest by the name of Jean Pierre Armand David recognized the creature as something no one from the Occident had ever recorded. He realized they were similar to bears and classified them as such.

He sent a giant panda pelt back to his home country France to the amazement and delight of everyone that saw it.

This relation to bears would finally be confirmed in the 1970s with DNA tests. People back in Paris were enamored by the white and black coat of the panda, just as we are today. The exotic appearance of the panda contributed to the popularity of the animal and has helped it to retain it.

Unfortunately, the fascination with pandas was so much that in the following decades, westerners began trooping to China to hunt them in order to acquire their pelts. Consequently, there was a steady decline in population; one that the bears are still recovering from today.

In another bit of gruesome history, Teddy Roosevelt is considered to be the first Westerner to shoot a giant panda. He performed the feat in 1929 and many believe this spurred on more and more Westerners to hunt the “exotic” creature.

Sadly, the “discovery” of Giant Pandas led to an influx of hunters. This, among other things, almost led to the extinction of this animal.

Live Giant Pandas In The West

This killing trend started to change in 1936, when an American fashion designer named Ruth Harkness traveled to China and brought back a baby panda, which she named Su Lin. She began a campaign to spread awareness about the dwindling panda population.

Su Lin was actually the first live panda brought to the West, and with this bear began the modern perception of giant pandas as cute, fluffy and majestic animals to be respected. Ruth Harkness fed Su Lin with a baby bottle, which definitely contributed to the image of pandas as cute, innocent creatures.

Ruth Harkness is most responsible for kicking off the living panda craze. Because, after seeing Su Lin, people would travel to China in attempts to encounter giant pandas in their natural habitat or bring them to zoos.

Zoos began to “rent” pandas from China for large amounts of money, a practice which still exists to date and encouraged China to begin to try and increase the panda population.

Around 300,000 people visited Su Lin at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago (where he eventually ended up) in just 6 months. Even the hardened gangster Al Capone!

What Makes The Panda Bear So Endearing?

One reason pandas became so popular, beyond their physical cuteness, is the idea of them being “shy” and maybe even a little “awkward.”

One event that contributed to this perception was an incident involving Chi Chi, a female panda at the London Zoo, in the 1960s. It was very difficult to get her to procreate (pandas apparently have trouble procreating while in captivity). In fact, the zoo went as far as flying Chi Chi all the way to Russia to mate with a male.

This mating trip was highly publicized but the plan failed spectacularly.

Another reason they are so endearing is obviously their looks – there really is nothing else like it in the world.

The black spots around a panda’s eyes make them look larger. That’s attractive and “cute” to humans (think of the way cartoons are often drawn). The way they sit up while they eat, and also have pseudo-thumbs, kind of reminds us of ourselves.

The panda is also considered mysterious by Westerners, as it often avoids humans in the wild. Mystery, of course, is fascinating to people.

In addition, people are very interested in the giant panda’s apparent obsession with bamboo, which comprises 99 percent of their diet. Hardly any other animal eats that much bamboo in one day – often up to a staggering 30 pounds per day!

With all of these factors taken together, it’s easy to see why giant pandas are so beloved in the West.

Pandas are a truly majestic, one-of-a-kind creature. Conservation efforts have been largely successful in bringing them back from the brink of extinction. Therefore, we can expect pandas to be around for a long, long time. That would allow us enjoy their antics for years to come.

Here’s to the survival of more pandas in the West and elsewhere worldwide!







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