10/01/2012 04:13 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Baby Panda Dies, Zoo Goes On


Animals Make Us Emotional and a Little Silly

The death of the baby panda last week that lived for six days at the National Zoo inspired an almost undue amount of interest around here. But then, when a mother has had such a hard time giving birth -- this one had only one cub in a decade of pregnancies and her predecessor in the 1980s lost all five after birth -- delight and subsequent dismay are to be expected, especially when an animal embodies the idealized form of warm and fuzzy.

Since the zoo is next door to where I live, I try to visit every day. My first stop? The zebras to see the cause of the racket I hear from our apartment all the time. A braying zebra, I now know, sounds like a donkey with American Idol delusions. The three in residence are 7-year-olds, territorial adolescent males, a docent told me, and on call as studs for other zoos.

Noise sensitive as I am, I'm more delighted than bothered. Who could be bothered with a zoo like this next door? More than a century old, run by the Smithsonian and free to its two million visitors a year, the 163-acre urban park holds about 2,000 animals from 400 species. It also attracts the greatest variety of baby strollers I've ever seen, from modest to six wheelers.

In my daily visits, it's fun to listen in. If animals make us human, as Temple Grandin believes, they also make us silly. "Do you think he's having a good day?" I heard a child ask about an alligator loitering in the sun. Nearby, an orangutan was hanging on a pole like a straphanger at rush hour. "He knows exactly what's going on," I heard a woman say.

I didn't know what she meant by that, but who can resist anthropomorphizing at a zoo? One elephant, a "pesky" male, according to a docent, stood in a dusty enclosure with his head against a wall. "He's punishing himself by standing in the corner," I heard a girl say. Actually he was waiting to get inside a building where dinner would be served, but no matter.

Of course, nothing brings out our free ranging feelings more than baby animals.

On Saturday, a day before the death, a giddy crowd was looking into the panda area with something of the excitement of new parents at the window of a maternity ward. The father panda was walking on a hill, permanently divested of child-rearing duties, but looking, I thought, dazed from the non-stop squeaking of a needy infant inside the panda house.

Earlier that day, Mei Xiang, the mother, had finally come outside after six days of intensive childcare. She stumbled around, ate some leaves, drank water and relieved herself, exhausted from keeping a fragile infant (not much bigger than a stick of butter, and as yet unnamed and of undetermined sex) safe, warm and nourished.

"She's being a fabulous mother," a doting docent told me, as if she were talking about her own daughter. "And it's a good thing she finally took some time off for herself."

By the following morning, Sunday, the baby was dead from a liver problem. When I got there, many visitors didn't know. Those who did looked doleful and expressed dismay.

"How did the baby die?" I heard a little boy whisper.

"Let's go look at the elephants," his father said as he moved him along.

Talking about death to children isn't easy. But it resonates with us. Some might say we should be feeling more for people in peril and concern ourselves with infant mortality rates around the world. But if we find our emotions from animals perhaps it's because their innocence pulls at our hearts. They are without any politics at all, especially compelling in this of all cities.

When I went back two days after the death, it was a Tuesday and the area was quiet. Mei Xiang, it had been reported in the news, was inside the panda house resting, and holding a rubber toy close to her chest. Thick stands of bamboo bent and rustled in the wind. A sympathy card was tied to one with a ribbon. It was addressed to Mei Xiang in clear cursive handwriting.

I have lost too. First my mother... then the two babies who are in my heart as I visit you.

Zoos may not address war or unemployment, but they give us a chance to consider the profound miracle and fragility of life. What a gift to have one next door, even with the braying.