Pandas and Pandering

‘CCTV from a Chinese zoo shows a terrified panda trying to climb a tree in fear when a huge earthquake struck on Saturday [April 20th, 2013].’

Some of you may have already seen this on television. We’re quite fond of cute critters displaying human- like emotions.

Some reports attached this photo, claiming it was the grateful panda. It seems, however, that it was taken some years ago.

lYANJThe subtext is ‘Here is this cute panda. See it gets scared, just like we do. But we will calm it down and everything will be OK.’ The photo seems to suggest, ‘Thank you. Don’t leave me.’

For me, there are two issues here: 1. the emotions of the giant panda, and 2. our human interpretation of the panda’s behaviour.

Giant Pandas have been around for a very long time and it would be surprising if they have not developed an understanding of earthquakes. Most mammals have senses we cannot begin to comprehend. Some of them can sense ‘natural disasters’ before we do.

While hundreds of thousands of humans were killed during the tsunami in 2005, very few other mammals were. Most headed for the high ground long before it hit.

Giant Pandas are not quite the solitary creatures we like to think they are. Research mentioned here suggests that they live in small groups (7-15) spread over a large area. They communicate their emotions through vocalizations. Listen to these extraordinary examples. Here is the sound of a baby Panda (‘pathetic’ is the wrong word here):

How to respond to an earthquake would be knowledge handed down through generations of pandas over hundreds of thousands of years. Natural selection may have converted this into an instinct.

It would be interesting to know how pandas living in their natural habitat respond to earthquakes. I believe they would feel the earthquake’s oncoming presence and head for somewhere safe and trusted. They would know better than us where such places are.

But the panda in the opening clip is in an enclosure, so any natural behaviours are constrained by the fence. It cannot run. And it must surely know that climbing a tree is not going to help. They’re not stupid.

Is this panda afraid of the earthquake, or is it afraid because it has no experience of this happening and there are no other pandas around to share information and feelings? The chain of generational knowledge may have been broken long ago and the panda may have no idea of what is going on.

I would expect it to vocalize its fear, but it makes not a sound, perhaps because there are no other pandas around.

Certainly other mammals have emotions, but they have emotions appropriate to their species and its circumstances. Projecting human emotions onto them isn’t going to do them any good. We need to imagine life through their senses, through their emotions. Better still, to look at ourselves through their senses.

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