Taiwan-China relations were dealt a severe setback yesterday when it was found that Taipei Zoo’s “pandas” are not what they seem.
Zookeepers discovered at feeding time yesterday that the two pandas are in fact Wenzhou brown forest bears that had been dyed to create the panda’s distinctive black-and-white appearance.
The Taipei Zoo’s head of ursidae ex-procyonidae care, Connie Liu (劉長春), said she became suspicious when the pandas, Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓), began to spend almost all of their waking hours having sex. Pandas are notorious for their low libidos, which make them difficult to breed in captivity.
“Let’s just say Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan would tuan yuan at every chance,” said Liu, referring to the combination of the panda’s names, which means “to reunite” in Mandarin. “They would do it doggy-style and every armchair zoologist knows that pandas favor the missionary position — when they do it at all. Their behavior caused chaos. Children screamed and parents became irate.”
Her suspicions were confirmed yesterday when she noticed that the animals’ new hair growth was discolored.
“Their roots began to show,” she said.
A zookeeper who asked to be identified only by his nickname A-diung (阿忠) because he was not authorized to speak with the media said he and his coworkers had long had their doubts, but were discouraged from publicly voicing their concerns by management.
“Whenever the moaning from the panda enclosure gets too loud we gotta go in there and hose ’em down with cold water,” he said. “After a while, parts of the animals’ black-and-white patches started to turn brown.”
He said he alerted senior zoo staff who dismissed his concerns.
“They told me pandas at the zoo in Washington, DC, get lethargic and sometimes lie in their own feces because they can’t tolerate hot weather, so it didn’t surprise them at all that their fur was turning brown since Taipei’s hotter on average than Washington,” he said.
The pandas arrived in Taipei last December as a gift from the Chinese government. The pair were first offered three years ago, but were rejected by then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). After the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) won the presidential election last May, the pandas were accepted, though critics continue to decry what they see as an attempt by Beijing to bribe Taiwanese with cute, cuddly furballs in lieu of a more meaningful gesture of goodwill such as removing some of the 1,500 missiles China has pointed at Taiwan.
Even the pandas’ most diehard supporters were brokenhearted yesterday. Some angrily compared the subterfuge to last year’s contaminated milk scandal, when melamine that had been added to watered-down milk sickened 300,000 victims across China and led to a recall of diary products in countries including Taiwan.
“First the milk scandal and now this. What are we going to hear next?” said Chang I-jun (張麗君), a Taipei resident.
Chang, who operates a souvenir stand near the zoo’s entrance, added that the scandal would affect sales of her stuffed panda toys, panda T-shirts, panda pens and notepads, remote-controlled pandas on wheels, caps with panda ears on top, panda fans, panda flashlights, panda mugs, panda eyeglass cases, panda face masks, panda slippers, panda wallets and panda purses.
“China certainly owes us an apology,” said Chang.
In a statement released yesterday evening, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) addressed the panda scandal.
“We understand that our compatriots in Taiwan are very upset. We wish to assure them that we have taken steps to address their concerns. We hope that our Taiwanese friends enjoy the gift of two extremely rare Wenzhou brown forest bears,” Qin said.
Local media reported yesterday that, in December, traces of melamine were found in Chinese bamboo that had been shipped to Taipei to feed Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan when the pair were rejecting Taiwanese bamboo and had each lost 3kg.
In 2007, thousands of dogs and cats in North and South America died and became sick after Chinese companies added melamine to wheat gluten that was used to make pet food.
The reports said blood samples have been collected from the bears and sent to a lab at Academia Sinica where they are to be tested for harmful adulterants.
Substances to be tested for include glycol, a chemical similar to antifreeze which in 2007 was found in Chinese exports of cough syrup; chloramphenicol, a powerful antibiotic that has been present in honey from China since 1997; and the banned antibiotic nitrofuran, which is often detected in Chinese “hairy crabs” and shrimp sold in Taiwan.