Pandas Are Big Business for Zoos

ByABC News

W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 10, 2001 -- It has to be that face. Giant pandas remind us of our own children, with their big eyes and round cheeks. Or maybe it’s the way they play with their food. Whatever the reason, people are fascinated by them.

This morning, people waited at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., for as long as four hours to see Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, two giant pandas, make their public debut today. Excited reporters turned the panda house into — well, a zoo.

Even in the warm, fuzzy world of animal conservation, you do see dollar signs. The zoo is paying China $10 million for the privilege of keeping the pandas for 10 years.

Profits Expected to Exceed $1.2 Million

Washington zoo managers think they’ll sell $1.2 million in panda merchandise. That’s important, because even nonprofit zoos have to make money.

“Kids can take home little plushes, panda backpacks; we have panda toasters that put the face of a panda on every piece of toast that you put in there,” says Megan Winokur, publicist for Zoo Atlanta, which has two pands of its own.

Zoos know they can draw visitors, attract corporate donations, and even build a national identity just by showcasing one unique species. And pandas are perfect for that — they’re cute, cuddly and instantly recognizable.

Above all, the chance to see them is rare. Biologists say there are only about 130 to 140 such bears in captivity, and of that number, only seven are in the United States.

If you live in Washington, San Diego or Atlanta, there are pandas at your zoo. But this isn’t luck — the zoos worked hard to get them.

Zoo Atlanta waged a 12-year campaign to persuade China to give it two bears, and San Diego has spent $10 million in five years.

Corporations are also glad to fork money over for the bears. Fujifilm will get a lot of promotional benefit from its $7 million donation; UPS flew Zoo Atlanta's bears from China for free; and Federal Express had to match them by delivering Washington’s pandas.

For a Good Cause

Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo, expects the pandas to have a direct effect on attendance.

“No question, the pandas will bring more visitors; we expect as much as a 20 percent rise in visitation,” says Spelman.

But like many conservationists, Spelman insists the money is for a good cause.

“I hope the visitor leaves here thinking, ‘Wow, that was neat to see those two animals!’ and, ‘Wow, there are only a thousand of them left, we think, in the wild,’” she says.

So go to the gift shop and load up on panda snow globes, panda keychains, panda masks, and panda shot glasses. Forgive the pun, but a little pandemonium may be good for nature.