Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The curse of the rented panda

American zoos are regretting the day the pandas arrived because of the high fees that China charges for housing the iconic creatures

By Brenda Goodman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ATLANTA, GEORGIA

"There's a perception in China that US zoos are very rich because when they come over the zoos are beautiful," said Chuck Brady, the chief executive of the Memphis Zoo.

Zoos say they can break even on pandas, but only for the first few years.

"Year three is your break-even year," Brady said.

The Memphis Zoo expects to lose about US$300,000 per year on the pair of pandas it leased in 2003.

"After that, attendance drops off, and you start losing vast amounts of money. There is a resurgence in attendance when babies are born," Brady said.

Because they have had cubs born, the San Diego and the National Zoos have fared better financially than Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo, which still have not had luck with their breeding programs.

"The general feeling on the American side is that when the initial negotiations were done 10 years ago, we had very little information on the impact of pandas on zoos," Brady said. "Now we're stuck with this template."

Apart from foot traffic, pandas also inspire valuable, enthusiastic corporate sponsorships. FedEx, for example, flew Ya Ya and Le Le, the pandas at the Memphis Zoo, to the US from China in a decorated "Panda Express" plane. The public was even able to track the flight on a designated FedEx Web site.

Fujifilm, Home Depot, UPS and others have donated millions to be sponsors of panda exhibits at zoos, hoping to solidify business relationships with China, which regards the animal as a national symbol.

So far, China seems amenable to considering the zoos' request, though Kelly expects the negotiations to progress slowly.

"They are listening," Kelly said. "They are open. They have not responded to anything other than to say that the items that we put on the table are open to discussion. They have indicated they think the zoos need to honor their current agreements before we make changes."

In the zoos' favor is the fact that the lease program has generated important reproductive successes for a species that is critically endangered, said David Towne, director of the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation. Only 1,500 giant pandas are believed to be left in the wild.

For now, though, zoos with pandas do not inspire the envy they once did.

"It was like having a World Series winner in your town," said Towne, who lives in Seattle.

But now, he said, based purely on economics, "I've told my mayor and everyone else that the last thing we want is pandas."

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