Friday Night Soother: the Valentino of Pandas

Friday Night Soother: the Valentino of Pandas

by digby

Pan Pan, the wonder Panda

Karen Wille saw her panda friend for the last time in July 2016. He was in bad shape. He was skinny. His once-sleek black-and-white fur had dulled. Wille, a board member and volunteer with the nonprofit Pandas International, knew better than to expect wildlife-calendar perfection, airbrushed and coiffed. Even the most charismatic of megafauna have off days. Behind the big eyes and rounded frames that signal vulnerability and cuddliness to the human brain, pandas are real, live, 200-pound bears. Bears that can shred your flesh. Bears that roll around in the dirt and turn themselves dingy gray. Bears that grow old and frail. 
But it was still hard to see reality catching up to her friend. Wille had been to China to visit this specific bear many times before. This time, though, nobody wanted to talk much about how he was doing. His keepers were more protective than normal. Wille had about five minutes with him — enough time for a pat on the head and a carrot. She was heartbroken, but not surprised, when he died five months later. 
His name was Pan Pan. It translates to something like “hope,” an identity that likely meant one thing when he was an abandoned, sick cub on a Chinese mountainside and something very different later in his life. 
When he died from cancer on Dec. 28, 2016, the 31-year-old Pan Pan was the world’s panda paterfamilias: the oldest known living male and the panda (male or female) with the most genetic contribution to the species’ captive population. Today, there are 520 pandas living in research centers and zoos, mostly in China. Chinese officials say more than 130 of them are descendants of Pan Pan.
Pan Pan saved his species by being really, really, ridiculously good at sex. Before Pan Pan, experts thought that building up a stable population of captive pandas was going to require extensive use of artificial insemination. Pan Pan not only led the way on reproducing in captivity, he taught us that pandas were perfectly capable of doing it for themselves — and they’re now increasingly allowed to do so. Scientists say giant pandas represent, hands down, the most successful captive animal breeding program humans have ever embarked on, and, partly, we have Pan Pan to thank. He was a big, fluffy stud muffin, and he was beloved. “It sounds kind of weird,” Wille said of their first meeting in 2012. “Most people want to meet rock stars or movie stars. I wanted to meet Pan Pan. He was a legend.” 

Here he is:

Read the whole article if you would like a feel good story about one successful effort to save a precious animal from extinction.