Why Pandas don’t “Deserve to Die” – part 3 of 3

To conclude our series based on the article “How To Argue With Someone Who Says ‘Pandas Deserve To Die”By Dan Nosowitz we present Dan’s final rebuttals:

Statement: “We’re spending so much money on these dumb bears! We should be spending it elsewhere!”

Response: There’s an inherent flaw with that argument, in that taking money away from something you don’t think is worthwhile hardly ever means that money flows into something you do think is worthwhile. Cutting the budget for the Department of Defense doesn’t mean the Department of Education will suddenly have $500 billion to actually educate America’s youth. Cutting the budget for NASA doesn’t mean we’ll have more money to bomb Syria.

Zoos and governments spend money on pandas because they’re symbolic, because they’re big draws, and because it’s a very prestigious thing to have a panda at your zoo or in your country. Diverting money from saving pandas doesn’t mean we’ll have more money to save the Chinese giant salamander or the forest coconut tree, let alone cute animals like the Amur leopard or greater bamboo lemur.

Plus, this is very little money we’re talking about; zoos don’t usually completely recoup the fees that China charges them to “rent” the bears (yeah, all panda bears in the world officially belong to the People’s Republic, even the ones born in captivity in other countries), but the zoos still make back most of the money. We’re talking about maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, nationwide, in “losses.” Do you have any idea what the Pentagon’s budget is this year? I’ll tell you. It’s well over a trillion dollars. Complaining about the cost of pandas is like complaining about the cost of Netflix. It’s eight dollars. There’s no way that’s your biggest financial concern. Just pay the eight dollars.

Statement: “But Chris Packham said…”

Yeah, I know. Packham, a British television naturalist of the Attenborough variety, said in 2009 that pandas “should be allowed to become extinct.” Packham was, like anyone who makes this argument, being needlessly contentious, but he was actually arguing that panda habitats were so thoroughly destroyed that captive breeding programs would never succeed in reintroducing enough pandas back into the wild to get wild populations to stable levels. There are plenty of conservationists who disagree with Packham, but even if there weren’t, it’s foolish to pick out one minority view and insist that only that view is correct. And you’ll see Packham quoted in every single article that makes the argument that pandas should die.

Statement: “Pandas are just a figurehead; they get way too much money just because they’re cute.

Sure, they’re cute and weird and charismatic, but that’s not a reason to not help them. Pandas are dying because we’re killing them and killing their habitat, not because of some internal flaw. To argue that they’re dying because evolution has just decided it’s the panda’s time to go away is absurd; this is our fault and nobody else’s. You can’t shoot a guy and then argue that if he was stronger and faster and better, he’d have been able to dodge it, so it’s his fault.

Pandas do get a lot of money, but they’re still highly endangered and have a very clear risk of going extinct in the near future, despite all that money. They deserve to live as much as any animal; it’s not fair to hurt their chance of survival just because other people think they’re cute. I’m not even sure that argument makes sense. It’s not like pandas are over-funded and roaming the streets of American suburbs.

Statement: “But why bother saving them at all?”

Response: Partly because it’s completely our fault that they’re dying out, so if we had a basic sense of guilt, we’d make some attempt to prevent their extinction. And partly because it’s a cute weird fluffball and its cuddliness may serve as an introduction to conservation and ecology, and perhaps lead to an interest in learning about those subjects. “So by having pandas in zoos it really engages people—it really is about getting people to care, and that’s important,” Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, told National Geographic.

But also, pandas are the international symbol for the World Wildlife Fund, and attempts to save them have had generally positive effects on the health of the planet. China, as a rapidly industrializing power, is doing what rapidly industrializing powers do, and mowing down any and all parts of the country that might house profitable manufacturing centers. Yet the fame of the panda has convinced China to create the Chengdu Wolong National Nature Reserve, an enormous protected park of over 770 square miles. It’s home to 150 pandas, but also other rare creatures like the (unrelated) red panda, golden snub-nosed monkey, takin, snow leopard, and clouded leopard, along with untold numbers of rare plants and insects. That land wouldn’t be protected if not for the panda.

The part that really rankles me about these arguments is that they’re made on a simply rhetorical level. They’re made because people think it’s fun to argue. And they pick the panda because it’s an adored emblematic figure, so it’s extra edgy to say it should die. But this isn’t a joke; this is an animal that’s vital to the ecosystem in China (and, consequently, to the rest of the world). It eats bamboo and distributes bamboo seeds, allowing the forest to survive and provide a habitat for birds, insects, and mammals that live there. It’s the main distributor of bamboo seeds in its habitat; to remove it from its ecosystem would have serious, untold effects.

And we have killed it, simply because we felt like it and because it was not able to adapt to human presence in the short time we’ve been around. It’s actively harmful to the environmental and conservationist movement to make these arguments in a non-satirical way.

Thank you, Dan, for your insightful, well written, and scientifically grounded arguments.