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Forget about political news and everything else -- it's time to focus on pandas

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

First Lady Jill Biden just dropped some big news for animal lovers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JILL BIDEN: It's official - the pandas are coming back to D.C.

MARTÍNEZ: That's right - the National Zoo in Washington expects to receive a pair of giant pandas later this year.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last November, the zoo had to give up its pandas - pandas they'd kept for years, which were on loan from China. China wanted them back. NPR has been covering D.C.'s pandas since the first pair were delivered back in 1972.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At the appointed time, Mrs. Nixon arrived at the National Zoological Park. She was escorted to a long, raised platform outside the panda house.

INSKEEP: OK, it was the business of the first lady back in 1972 - apparently, still the business of the first lady in 2024. I guess she gets all the good news.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, consistency, Steve. Now, the return of pandas - pretty big news, right? Sounds like it is. It got us thinking, though - since we don't normally cover new lizards at the zoo, or maybe bison or sea lions, so what about these pandas has got us really wrapped up around their furry paws? Why, why, why?

BRANDIE SMITH: The first thing is, they are just so darn cute.

INSKEEP: Although you would not really want to be grabbed by their paws. That's Brandie Smith. She is the director of the National Zoo. And before that, she was their curator of giant pandas.

SMITH: They're almost perfectly designed to pull on our heartstrings. They actually have features that are similar to babies, like the round faces, the big eyes, that little nose and mouth. So looking at a giant panda kind of biologically pulls on the same things that we feel when we look at infants.

INSKEEP: And then you hear the baby panda's the size of a stick of butter - and if that's not adorable enough for you, wait until you hear what they sound like.

SMITH: People are always surprised by those different noises. There are honks. There can be huffs. But the noise most people hear is a bleat.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANDA BLEATING)

SMITH: It sounds almost goat-like, doesn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF PANDA BLEATING)

MARTÍNEZ: But our obsession with pandas is about more than just extreme cuteness.

SMITH: They're rare. They're exceptionally rare. The opportunities to see them are few and far between.

INSKEEP: For a long time, giant pandas were on the endangered species list. Recent preservation efforts have helped, and they were moved to the vulnerable list, although their numbers are still not great.

SMITH: There are just about 1,900 pandas in the wild right now, and I think there are close to 800 in zoos around the world. To put it in perspective, there are more black bears in Virginia than there are pandas on the planet.

INSKEEP: Which is very important information - but have we mentioned how cute they are?

SMITH: It never gets old. I have been here for 16 years. And every time I look at a giant panda, my heart melts - just every time.

INSKEEP: And now your heart can melt a lot more because the National Zoo in Washington struck a 10-year deal with China, and they're expecting the new pandas to arrive sometime this fall.

MARTÍNEZ: They're not even in my top three black-and-white animals.

INSKEEP: They're not in your top three black-and-white...

MARTÍNEZ: No.

INSKEEP: What?

MARTÍNEZ: Zebras...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Orcas, Dalmatians, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Skunk even ranks higher for me.

INSKEEP: Skunk is higher for you?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What's the matter with you?

MARTÍNEZ: I'm not up on all the whole panda hysteria.

INSKEEP: What about one of those Socks cats? Would that also be - you know, the black cat with the white feet?

MARTÍNEZ: Higher on the list for me than a panda.

INSKEEP: I don't know. I don't know. When my oldest was very small, we would go on a Saturday morning at eight before everybody else and just look at pandas at the zoo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KUNG FU FIGHTING")

CEE LO GREEN: (Singing) Everybody is kung fu fighting. Your mind becomes fast as lightning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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