The Panda Complex
by Kyle Flemmer
“When I first met Yaba, I was so nervous I threw up on a fern in her enclosure.” Norman Spitzer sat back in his metal chair wearing a satisfied grin. He took a sip of water from a Styrofoam cup held delicately as a champagne flute, wrists handcuffed together.
“You must understand,” he said, “Yaba was the last female giant panda in captivity, and the first panda I ever met in person, so I had worked myself into a fit of anxiety before going in. That is not to say I’m anything less than a panda fanatic. True, the world is brimming with enthusiasts; you’ve seen those teenage girls who carry a panda bear plush around the mall like a fashion accessory, or a street canvasser in boho sandals and a World Wildlife Foundation vest, cornering pedestrians with guilt. But I’m no dime-a-dozen pandaphile; I’m an aficionado and a noted conservational biologist.”
“That’s not why you and I are having this little chat,” said Special Agent Morris, sitting across from Norman in the amply-lit interrogation room. An RCA camcorder stared dispassionately at the captive over the agent’s left shoulder.
“Actually,” Norman replied, “it has a great deal to do with it. For instance, did you know that the primary concern in determining a panda’s natural territory is access to multiple species of bamboo? That’s why pandas in the wild died out. We forced them into the highlands where bamboo diversity is limited and they all starved to death.”
Morris frowned. Local police had caught Norman fleeing through a swamp, hysterical and covered in mud, after an exhausting 24-hour manhunt. They dumped him on the FBI like bad news and Special Agent Morris was assigned the interrogation. He felt somewhat like a scapegoat, given the volatility of the situation, but a confession of this magnitude could gild his career. Morris was obviously impatient. “So what?” he snarled, trying to bully cooperation from the suspect.
“Sooooo,” said Norman unaffectedly, “if the wild population had not disappeared, then the Pandatopium would never have been built and I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting Yaba.”
“What exactly is a Pandatopium?”
“Don’t you watch the news? Only the biggest media spectacle since JFK decided to go to the moon. Every headline was wailing about the demise of wild pandas. China’s government put severe restrictions on deforestation and carbon emissions, but it was futile – the panda’s habitat was already a glorified quagmire, and smog has a tendency to drift with the wind. Ecosystems are notoriously fragile things, after all. To atone for the loss of their cherished idol, the Minister of the Environment was executed on Chinese National Television by firing squad, as if that could solve anything. The only remaining pandas lived in zoos around the world; two in London, six between Beijing and Hong Kong, two in San Diego, and two here in Anaheim. People rioted en mass to get a last, pitiful look at their dying obsession, the twelve apostles of Mother Nature, which were quickly swept into protective custody, hidden from the frantic mob.”
“Weren’t there more than twelve? They’ve been bred in captivity for decades.”
Norman drained his water and produced a stick of gum from the pocket of his orange jumpsuit. He unwrapped it carefully, folding the verdant stick between his teeth as it passed into his mouth.
“Getting them to mate is trickier than it sounds. On top of that, animal rights associations prevented the use of artificial insemination around the same time we got it figured out. It’s ironic, I know, but artificial insemination sounds a little too rape-y for those tender-hearted shepherds of the Earth. The whole world’s rape-y, if you ask me, but the species was on the edge of extinction and something had to be done. That’s when the President commissioned the Pandatopium Complex, a habitat and research facility solely for the conservation of giant pandas. It cost three billion dollars to build, but it meant we had a case for housing all twelve pandas in a safe environment. Besides, London doesn’t have the climate for pandas and nobody trusted the Chinese with them anymore. It took three UN resolutions and some trade sanctions, but eventually China signed off on the transfer and the Pandatopium became the last resort for all panda-kind.”
“What about you? How did you become involved?”
“Oh, I’ll get there.” Norman shot Morris a congenial smile, causing the agent to grimace into his coffee. He could tell Norman was enjoying himself, recounting the tale with unnerving self-assurance. The agent mentally settled in. Goddamn coffee’s always cold at these regional offices, he thought, swirling the contents of his cup as he displaced his agitation. In the FBI we trust.
“It’s vital you understand where I’m coming from,” continued Norman. “Besides, panda history is far more interesting than you know; a real modern day tragedy. The most fascinating aspect, for me at least, is the rise of the panda cult. Have you ever noticed how frequently shops will use pandas in their advertisements and window displays? I’ve seen a Swiss chocolatier with upwards of twenty panda bears in the window. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy interest, like mine, but people actually worship the panda in some places. No kidding. I’ve seen shrines, incense, and chanting meant to undo millennia of biological selection and a bit of industrial expansion. You have to consider the animal kingdom in more practical terms like cause and effect – look at the big picture, so to speak.
“Either way, they were the world’s pet-project, and the Pandatopium was the nucleus of it all. I wrote a dissertation a few years back that caught the attention of a board member at the Complex. It’s called Factors Contributing to the Extinction of Giant Pandas: an analysis of human influences and their compounding effects on biological impediments. Basic stuff really, but the Board of Directors saw something in it and hired me on as the Chief of Sanctuary Assurance. Before you get too excited, it’s not that great of a job – more like Quality Assurance. I had to sit around all day and monitor the pandas in their enclosures on surveillance camera, making sure their caregivers complied with Sanctuary protocol. Trust me, protocol is monotonous.”
Morris snorted. He knew the cheerlessness of bureaucracy. Protocol meant an eternity of paperwork if he even thought about his firearm.
“Sanctuary was so close to my office that I occasionally got wafts of an acerbic, mammalian odor down the corridor from the enclosures. In the name of preventing a conflict of interest, Assurance staff at the Complex were never allowed to interact with the pandas, or to even enter the Sanctuary. That’s protocol, they said. And where did all that protocol get us? Nowhere!” Norman became increasingly animated, emphasizing his statements by thrusting his bound wrists into the air.
“The bears started dying one by one. Zhu Yu from London developed terminal bowel cancer after only a year at the Complex, and her sister Zhu Yi died shortly thereafter. I think it was depression at the loss of her only blood-relative. You can’t account for that in safety measures, cancer or depression, but a lot of good scientists were fired over it. Things got much worse when the pandas from the Chinese zoos started having allergic reactions to their nutritional supplements. Bamboo is nutrient-deficient, so every day a caretaker would force-feed a vitamin pellet the size of an egg to each of the bears. When the supplements sent from China ran out, the dieticians began feeding the bears from Beijing and Hong Kong American-made supplements. All six went into allergic shock within the hour and four died of anaphylaxis before anybody could figure out what was wrong. The other two were fitted with breathing tubes until their swelling went down. Both survived the ordeal, and were restricted to a supplementary diet of vegetation exclusively from the Orient. You see, the four American pandas were born captive in the States, and they developed a resistance to the local flora naturally. Nobody knew the Chinese bears would be intolerant, but there was another round of firings at the Pandatopium nonetheless.”
Agent Morris was deathly allergic to shellfish and his heart-rate elevated in unconscious sympathy with the bears. “That must have been hard,” he offered, goading Norman to elaborate.
“You can’t even imagine! I watched all of this unfold on the little video screens in my office. After dedicating myself for years to panda conservation, directing all the energy of my adult life into it, the last of them were slipping away right in front of my eyes. There would never be the chance to touch one. I was the foremost panda authority who had never met a panda bear and it was debilitating, like being a prisoner in my own nightmare.”
This guy better not be crazy, Morris thought, stiffening in apprehension. You can’t hang a maniac. Across the table, Norman’s demeanor fell as he meditated on his ordeal, though he soon revived, eyes glinting in the lens of the camcorder, and picked up the narrative.
“The circumstances of my promotion were not exactly pleasant, but you’ll need to know the specifics to make an informed judgment. The Pandatopium was down to six pandas: Yaba and another female, Lhang, and the four males; Poko, Tse Tse, Han Ren, and Wei. Our biologists experimented with all sorts of tactics to make them mate; guiding the bears into coital position like giant pose-able dolls, helping the males to achieving an erection, or displaying ‘instructional videos’ from the days of wild panda copulation. They injected hormones, pheromones, and fertility enhancers, tried different combinations of breeding pairs and pharmaceuticals, and somehow managed to keep the animal rights mafia largely ignorant. It was right around the second-year anniversary of the Pandatopium’s opening, and whether by chance or design, Lhang became pregnant, with twins no less. Relief surged through humanity in a jubilant wave. Many saw it as a miracle, sure proof of the divine cosmic order, but regardless of religion, everyone lost their minds to baby fever.”
Two curt knocks on the door interrupted Norman. Special Agent Morris left the room, returning a moment later with a bullet-proof vest and a pager. He slammed the door behind him.
“Is that for me?” Norman asked, pointing at the vest.
“Never mind.” Morris checked his watch. “Get back to the pandas. You still haven’t told me how you came to work in the Sanctuary.”
“That is what I’m telling you. Lhang’s panda cubs turned into a real fiasco and I wound up promoted. Panda bears are not capable of rearing multiple cubs in a litter. Their milk is just too thin as a result of their diet. This usually isn’t an issue in captivity; we can give the babies richer milk from a surrogate mother made of chicken-wire and faux fur. Problem is, the mother panda doesn’t know that. As soon as Lhang gave birth to the twins, she picked up the smaller of the two in her mouth and gnashed it to pieces. Gruesome, but in nature this necessary evil increases the overall odds of survival when resources are limited. Pigs do it all the time, so do lions and rabbits. However, ninety million TV watchers around the world had tuned in to see Lhang savage her own offspring, live, and in high definition. It made the execution of the Chinese Minister seem like Sunday morning cartoons. Panic ensued in the Sanctuary as caretakers pounced upon Lhang in a desperate attempt to save the baby from her jaws. Meanwhile, her second cub was crushed under the scrum.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Morris interjected. “How is that possible?”
“A baby pandas weighs only one eight-hundredth of the mother panda when it is born, the smallest bodyweight ratio of any infant mammal. They’re pitiful little creatures, about the size of a grapefruit, only pink and blind and helpless; Lhang simply rolled over it trying to avoid the gang of frantic scientists.”
“That’s horrific!” Agent Morris knew about the death of the panda twins, his wife cried all through Thanksgiving dinner that year, but he had shut his ears to the media scandal – too much news interfered with his work. Norman grinned at the reaction his words provoked.
“Those are the facts, I’m afraid. Lhang was too old to be having babies and the stress of it crippled her. Three days later she was dead. Needless to say, the public backlash was phenomenal. All the Sanctuary staff were fired, the Board of Directors shuffled itself discretely, and the government cut our budget in half and in half again. By the end of the purge there was no one left with any real panda-handling experience. The Chinese used this as an excuse to start making noise, pressuring the UN to return the five remaining pandas to their homeland, but as far as the UN was concerned, China blew their chance at sheltering the species years ago. For better or worse, we were stuck with them. That’s how I came to work with Yaba; there was nobody left with the proper qualifications – I had watched as they all disappeared.
“You can see now why I puked when I walked into her enclosure for the first time. I felt the weight of the world’s expectations hanging over me like a curse the very moment I realized my life-long dream, and it made me sick. Bent over that fern, I could not help resenting Lhang a little bit. We had finally managed to bring a few more pandas into being, add a couple of plusses to the ledger against the slew of negatives, and her basic instinct tore our hopes to shreds in a heartbeat. Yaba was our last shot. The males didn’t matter, at least, not like she did. There’s a whole crate of sperm samples frozen in some vault at the Pandatopium, but we would need a living mother should artificial insemination become an option.”
The pager buzzed across the table between the two men. Morris picked it up and looked at its digital display. Ten minutes. He referenced his watch.
“What’s the matter?” Norman asked.
“We’re transferring you to headquarters.”
“Am I in some sort of danger?”
Morris eyed the bullet-proof vest on the floor. In truth, the regional office had been surrounded by an angry mob an hour ago. They chanted Norman Spitzer’s name.
“Not really,” lied the agent, “but we’re pressed for time. The best shot you have of getting out of this mess is an honest deposition, made now, before this gets completely out of hand.”
“So it’s in your best interest to get back to the story. You were working with Yaba…”
“Yes, I became Yaba’s primary caregiver. It was a big job, considering how few staff were left at the Pandatopium, but at first it was really nice. I got over my dread of failing pretty quickly and immersed myself in getting to know Yaba, feeding her and playing with her. I say playing, but it was more like entertaining myself at her expense. She was incredibly lazy, more so than any of the males, and I would toss a tennis ball at her for hours on end while she lay in the dirt, breathing wearily. Bamboo doesn’t give the pandas much energy, so all they do is eat and sleep. I fed Yaba thirty pounds of bamboo every day, which soon became exhausting. And this gave rise to another problem. Pandas defecate about forty times a day, often without even moving from where they are. I had to scoop up mountains of feces and clean it out of her fur. She would lie there and shit all over herself, and if I didn’t wash it out, it would dry into cement on her hindquarters.
“Twice a week we would introduce one of the males to Yaba’s enclosure in the hope that they would mate. We tried all the tricks, but it was like attempting to breed coma patients. They were so sexually incompetent I began to wonder how the species could have emerged in the first place. No natural predators or competition for food, I suppose. What a privileged position in nature. Didn’t these bears know that responsibility for the future of their species rested entirely on the contents of their genitals? Could they not sense the necessity of copulation or the imminence of their demise? Isn’t survival supposed to hard-wired into every living being?
“After six months, this routine was no longer fun. All the various tasks I did only served to underscore Yaba’s complete and utter helplessness. It got so that the only thing I enjoyed was force-feeding her the vitamin pellet. This involved lying her back and kneeling on her chest while prying her mouth open with one hand and jamming the pellet down with the other. She clearly didn’t like it, but she didn’t resist too much and I felt as though I helped her; I got to be superior and benevolent in a way she could not possibly understand. Yet, even that got tiresome. The resentment I felt for Lhang months ago was spreading to my consideration of the panda species in general. Why were they all so pitiful?”
Morris’ pager vibrated again. He silenced it, obviously distressed. Norman saw his window of opportunity closing and moved on to what he knew the agent wanted to hear, though he continued to speak at a leisurely pace.
“One day, while feeding Yaba, the truth hit me all at once. I was handing her stalks of bamboo one at a time, watching while she scarfed them back. To pass the time more easily, I prodded her belly with a bamboo shoot, trying to provoke a reaction. Nothing. She was a fat kid tearing through a bag of Twizzlers in slow motion, completely unperturbed by my presence. Just like a fucking dodo bird, I thought. And that’s it, the crux of the whole thing.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Humanity makes idols out of all these rare and exotic animals, most of whom are threatened or on the endangered list. Honestly, I understand an admiration for snow leopards, elephants, rhinos and the like; their lives are fraught with constant danger, both natural and as a result of us. The Bengal tiger and the polar bear fight tooth and nail for their survival every day. Hell, even a salmon throwing itself upstream is overcoming incredible odds. But the panda does not. The panda lies back in its own filth and gluts itself on the worst possible food, wholly disinterested in mating or anything else. Their idleness knows no bounds. Every other animal, when confronted by danger, exerts itself to adapt, to stay alive by any means possible. The giant panda and the dodo bird were alike, totally apathetic in the shadow of the club.”
“Dammit, just what did you do to the panda? Tell me, Norman.”
“Well, when it came time to administer the dietary supplement that day, I put Yaba on her back, like usual, and a knee on her chest to hold her down. I reached out, but instead of opening her mouth, like I intended, my hands clamped around Yaba’s throat. They found her esophagus and squeezed, possessing strength that was not my own. Yaba gawked at me with big, glassy cow eyes. She convulsed once as her windpipe collapsed, again as her jugular drained out, and was deathly still. My hands fell away from the bear. They were fatigued. I stood automatically and fled the Sanctuary.”
There was a loud banging at the door.
“Just a minute,” called the agent.
“Goddammit, Morris. Now!”
“One minute!” He leapt up from his chair, moving around the table to assist Norman. When he got the captive standing, Morris shut off the camera and retrieved the Kevlar vest. “Why did you do it?”
“Come on, Agent Morris, isn’t it time to leave?”
“Who gave you the right, Norman? What makes you think you can deem a whole species pathetic or an object for your derision and just murder them?” Norman chuckled at this – Morris snapped. “You’re so fucking smug. Stop acting like you did us all some magnificent favor. Who made you judge, jury, and executioner? Tell me that!”
“Nobody. Mother Nature. Maybe I was possessed by the spirit of Darwin, the cold hand of destiny culling dead weight from the family tree, I’ve no idea. What I do know is this: even if I could’ve prevented my hands from killing Yaba, I probably wouldn’t have.”
Morris opened the door. Two agents in full riot gear stood waiting to escort Norman to the transport. “Aren’t you going to put on my vest?” asked Norman. Special Agent Morris shoved him out into the hall.
“Go get ‘em, tiger.”