Puppies. Otters. Lemurs. Meerkats. Donkeys. There are plenty of cute critters in the animal world. I’ve never really been a fan of giant pandas, perhaps because pure cuteness seems to be their main appeal. Pandas are beautiful and I’m sure they are wonderful animals, but (partly thanks to the Chinese government), I’ve always thought they are one of the most overhyped and oversold creatures on the planet.
There are plenty of other endangered/vulnerable species in the world that don’t get millions of dollars’ worth of love, including their own sanctuary and breeding/rehabilitation program in the bamboo forests. The one time I visited China and ended up in a souvenir shop trying to buy gifts for family, it seemed as if half of the merchandise was panda-related kitsch. What about the Iberian lynx, Vaquita, Matschie’s tree kangaroo, or even the red panda? And those are the endangered animals that are cute. Let’s not even start on uglier ones like the endangered blobfish. (No, don’t look it up. Once you’ve seen a photo of a blobfish, you can’t unsee it.)
Not those panda movies.
Nope, wrong one.
I don't think it was that one either.
That wasn't the one I watched.
Oh, my goodness. Not the right movie.
No, these are all wrong. The movie I saw was titled simply "Pandas". By the way, all these other images are promotional material for their respective films, the rights to which are owned by their studios, distributors, or artists.
For a while, many scientists believed that giant pandas and red pandas were more closely related to raccoons than to bears (throwing into question their longer “panda bear” name). But more recently, DNA evidence has put pandas back in the bear group. If so, they must be the most tumbly and least self-sufficient member of the bear family. How exactly did pandas survive in the wild before people came along to baby them? Too cute.
Despite my preconceptions, my family and I ended up at an IMAX theater recently and the next show was a documentary film on pandas. My kids saw the trailer online and wanted to buy tickets. So we ended up watching a movie that was imaginatively titled Pandas. The kids noted that the narrator also had voiced the role of Princess Anna in Frozen. The cuteness factor further compounded as soon as the first pandas appeared. Get ready for a full feature of goofy black and white balls of cute tumbling around, I thought.
But the filmmakers called my bluff at the very beginning, announcing that “it takes a special person” to see pandas as more than just cute. Well, who doesn’t want to be a “special person”? Am I intelligent enough to leave my biases at the door or dumb enough to let them encumber my movie-going experience? Of course, I resolved to look beyond the cuteness and try to appreciate the story. I’m fairly sure that I would have tried to do so anyway, but their challenge left me with little choice. The early cute scenes and the strange choice of a ZZ Top song almost did me in, but I stuck with it and was glad I did.
Did ZZ Top know their music would be used in a movie about cute pandas? Creative Commons via Wikipedia.com by Brian Marks.
Pandas (the movie) begins at the Chengdu panda research facility, which specializes in breeding and supporting its resident pandas. The director there, Hou Rong, has devoted her whole life to studying and helping pandas (with great success), but she realized that that the facility’s breeding success has brought them to a new phase in panda rehabilitation. There have been hundreds of pandas born in captivity, but to improve the population in the wild, they need to be able to transition these creatures out into nature rather than keep them forever in a glorified zoo.
The trouble is that none of these captive pandas, or their mothers, have lived in the wild. And the facility staff does not have experience in transitioning animals back into the wild. But Hou Rong learns about a man in New Hampshire in the United States who rescues and returns black bear cubs to the wild, so she pays him a visit to see his work. Along with other alumni, we meet a mother bear who was cared for by this man, Ben Kilham. Twenty-two years and many wild cubs later, this bear still maintains a friendship with Kilham even while living successfully in the forests of New England.
A panda with Ben Kilham, the New England man whose experience helping orphaned black bear cubs provides the model for re-introducing pandas into the wild. From the movie "Pandas" by IMAX Corp. and Warner Bros.
Hou Rong sees how well Kilham’s method works with bears that are living wild, yet still maintaining a connection to him so that he can monitor their wellbeing. She decides to invite him to China so that his method can be implemented with the transitioning pandas. Soon, they hire and train two young biologists, one from the United States and another from Inner Mongolia, who will run this program and interface with the soon-to-be-wild pandas.
Then we meet the true star of the movie, Qian Qian. She is the first captive-bred giant panda who they have chosen to move into the wild. Over a period of two years, the two young biologists raise and train Qian Qian, moving her through stages from a panda research center to a large enclosed area and ultimately beyond the fences into the mountains inhabited by wild pandas. Her journey is at times cute and adorable, but she becomes a panda who must rely on her own skills to live successfully in the mountains.
Qian Qian with the two biologists who help her handle the transition to the wild. From the movie "Pandas" by IMAX Corp. and Warner Bros.
It is a struggle for survival and there are setbacks, but the movie ends with the audience believing that this formula and hard work can be replicated with more of Qian Qian’s successors.
Pandas are magnificent, living creatures that need to make their own way in the world. With a population of under 3,000, they have a daunting struggle to maintain their existence on this planet. They are fortunate to have a helping hand from humans, even if that assistance is more than other species get. I came away from this movie with a new appreciation for the people who dedicate themselves to this life’s work of helping these pandas. The animals themselves are much more than just furry balls of cuteness, but perhaps they are fortunate also that cuteness sells. It’s probably funding their rehabilitation.
Top image: Poster for the movie "Pandas" by IMAX Corp. and Warner Bros. Bottom image: Hou Rong, known as the Panda mom, has dedicated her life to helping these animals. From the movie "Pandas" by IMAX Corp. and Warner Bros.