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Susan Orlean says even when they are asleep and doing nothing, we still get a lot of joy from watching pandas.
Orlean set out to understand what she calls the "magic" of the panda's appeal to human beings by volunteering to watch baby Bao Bao at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Because young pandas are very fragile, the zoo was monitoring baby Bao Bao and mother Mei Xiang with cameras.
"What struck me as hilarious is that Mei Xiang and baby Bao Bao were sound asleep, not even moving," Orlean told Here and Now's Robin Young, "And everybody was just staring at the monitors, going, 'Wow! Great morning.' "
Orlean says in part we respond with delight to pandas because they look like children. But she says they are also unique — they are genetically bears, but an odd kind of bear, because they do not hibernate, hunt, eat meat or growl. And they have an opposable thumb, which is rare in nature.
Pandas seem to be much less interested in each other than we are in them; they do not spend time together as friends or couples. They have a very short mating season, but they would likely be doing fine in the wild if humans had not encroached on their habitat.
Orlean says that while we do spend a lot of money to protect pandas, they also earn a lot of money, because they are consistently the biggest draws for the zoos which have them.
And researchers see them as a "gateway animal," that might lead people to be interested in conservation more widely.
Orlean says the appeal of the panda doesn't diminish for the researchers. She described the pure joy on the face of a longtime panda scientist who babysat a panda cub in the wild.
This segment aired on January 15, 2014.
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