A baby panda arrived into the world at the National Zoo in Washington, D. C. on 16 September. Instantly, she/he was an international celebrity. So what. Let me explain my skepticism about what this birth really means.
Captive animals aren't really "ambassadors" for their species
There's no way this individual will be released into the wild and there's little reason to believe they really will be an effective "ambassador" for the good of their species as it's often claimed they are. Captive animals are just that, captive animals, and don't reflect what life is like for others of their species, especially wild relatives. Sure, their presence generates a good deal of public interest and money, but there's no basis for arguing that this birth will do much, if anything, for the good of other pandas. Not a single news report I saw, heard, or read discussed the fate of this individual and none mentioned the sort of life this baby will have in the future.
Just as places like SeaWorld are effectively breeding/killer whale mills, zoos also are places where more and more babies are made with no possibility of their ever seeing wild nature. When they've served their purpose after they've lost their charm and allure individuals are often moved here and there to become future breeders. Friends and familiar and comfortable surrounds are left behind for making more babies and of course, more money. And this cycle goes on and on.
What's in it for the baby and their species?
I'm all for working to maintain dwindling global biodiversity and I'd like to see more open and frank discussion about what events such as this really mean for the newborn, for her/his species, and for saving their natural habitats. In this case, for example, we need to know what percentage of income will go directly into panda conservation and habitat preservation? Will any attempt be made to place this baby into the wild? I know how difficult this would be but at some point there needs to be an attempt to "reintroduce" captive-born animals into their native habitats or else why continue to make more of them.
When I talk with people about events like this, even those who support zoos to varying degrees, they're often not as enthusiastic as they are out in the public. There are some other very important questions that deserve and demand serious discussion. For example, should we put all of our effort into helping wild pandas and phase out captive populations? Is any life better than no life at all? I know questions like this are very challenging and move us out of our comfort zones, but the very lives of many individuals are on the line, lives that are totally dependent on the decisions we make.
It's easy to be consumed by cuteness, sensationalist PR, and the rabid press, but in the end this baby panda and others like her/him will have highly compromised lives, in some cases rather long lives, in unnatural captive habitats with no control over what happens to them. I don't see this as an especially good life.