Pandas Toronto

Wouldn't it be better if the pandas just stayed home?

Two giant pandas are coming to Toronto, and evidently, I'm supposed to be excited. While I suspect I could get the same experience with a sunburn and Animal Planet DVD, general hype tells me that these animals aren't to be missed. Though I'm not so sure. Is the price that Toronto is paying — literally and figuratively—to bring and keep these foreign animals really worth the grossly overestimated capital and diplomatic payoffs?

Indeed, diplomatic gestures throughout history have taken many forms; armistice agreements, shared intelligence, loaned troops, and even the odd 150-foot crowned statue. And yes, next spring, a sign of international goodwill will manifest in the form of a pair of 200+ pound Canada-bound endangered animals, carrying on an ancient Chinese diplomatic tradition and undoubtedly making Councillor Mammoliti squeal.

Er Shun and Ji Li, perhaps the furriest embodiment of international exchange of late, are set to arrive at the Toronto Zoo in the spring of 2013. While their visitation is officially considered a "loan" (*snort*) the zoo will be making a $1 million "donation" to conservation efforts in China for each of the five years Er Shun and Ji Li will be chewing bamboo in our pens. Speaking of which, the cost just to feed them is expected to run upwards of $200,000 annually, on top of another $800,000 to renovate the home of the Siberian tiger to make it panda-friendly. On top of all that, there are additional costs for maintenance, specialized training for vets, zookeepers, and that salary for whatever poor PR person is charged with the task of reinforcing that this actually is a good idea.

Officials have said that they don't expect taxpayers to be on the hook for any of the cost, adding that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus have both expressed interest in visiting the new panda exhibit. It should be noted that the City already contributes more than $11 million annually to keep the zoo up and running, all the while it continues to see decreases in visitor attendance. There was a five per cent in decline in attendance from 2010 to 2011, which, granted, was an improvement on the 12 per cent decline from 2009 to 2010.

The zoo, however, is banking on the attendance spike that tends to come with special exhibits, as was the case in 1985 when two giant pandas came to Toronto for a 100-day visit. Attendance broke all previous records during those 100 days, and the zoo saw approximately $13.7 million in revenue. But will it happen this time? Repeat spectacles don't do as well the second time around as a general rule, and this time — more than 25 years later — people are far more sensitive to issues of keeping wildlife in captivity. As well, with a five-year window to gawk at the pandas (as opposed to just 100 days like last time) I don't expect visitors will be knocking down the doors on opening day.

Then there are a series of ethical questions, so just let me affix my bleeding heart for a moment. I, personally, have a few qualms with shipping animals across the world so we can allow our loose jaws to gawk, nevermind keeping them in captivity with no intention of natural re-integration and forcing them to mate so we can send China back a gift. There are plenty of endangered species in Canada that could use some zoo-sponsored attention, but of course, the Long-billed Curlew isn't quite as cute and cuddly as one of China's million-dollar pandas.

And then there's the matter of what Canada is getting out of this exchange — and I don't mean the pandas. Is it too early for the words "free trade?" Or should we just stick with "cute and cuddly pandas" and prepare to shell out $12 for panda-shaped ice cream bars. Treating animals like cheap currency is not my idea of a good time at the zoo (there bleeds that heart again...), and I suspect they won't be the cash cows zoo officials expect them to be. When China's pandas do finally arrive in Toronto, you can be sure I'll be at home watching Animal Planet.

Photo by fortherock on Flickr

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