Pandas are an icon of both China and conservation, and as such a high platform creature, you’d think we’d know them well. As this post will explain, so much we think we know about the panda, is actually about PR.
But first, let’s get to know this adorable black and white bear. These highly distinctive animals diverged from the ursus lineage 20 million years ago and whilst we know this today, in the past the taxonomic classification of the panda was debated. After all, they are very different to the rest of the bear family, they are black and white and have the look of a raccoon.
Pandas were carnivores up until 4 million years ago when they moved over to bamboo, a seemingly specialised diet until you remember that their native mountains are covered in this food. Despite there being over 300 types of bamboo, pandas are picky and do only eat a few of these…. As if finding the food wasn’t tricky enough, it’s hard to eat. Bamboo is tough and so the panda has powerful cheek muscles which let them break through the tough outer layer. It is this feature that gives it the iconic round head and a bite almost as powerful as a lion’s. Bamboo also requires a lot of digesting so pandas wake very early, spending half their time eating bamboo and the other half digesting it.
This behaviour put me in mind of the idea of chewing the cud. Take your time here, mull things over. Consume a lot of information, digest it slowly and then make conclusions.
One really fun thing about pandas is that they can hold onto bamboo whilst climbing trees because of a sixth ‘finger’. Perhaps the panda is actually evolutionary advanced, rather than an evolutionary mistake as they are so often portrayed.
And so we move to the image of the bumbling, clumsy creature who can’t take care of herself, let alone any babies they may ever actually have. This is a lie.
They aren’t actually as endangered as we be told. Their main issue is not that they are rubbish at reproducing but that their habitat is being destroyed. They are regularly portrayed as incompetent breeders, as an evolutionary mistake, but are actually excellently adapted to their eccentric lifestyle. After all, they’ve been around for millions of years!
This idea of them as vulnerable vegetarians, with their big needy eyes, who aren’t interested in sex is a Disney washed image, a PR stunt, that allows us to ignore the role that humans have had in their demise. By shifting the blame to the panda, we can continue to destroy their habitats without a conscience at the same time as painting ourselves as heroes.
It is important to know that they do have a very brief fertility window but they are also able to delay implantation of the foetus so they can wait until circumstances are better.
Breeding attempts in captivity have famously failed, but this isn’t all that surprising when you realise that some of these have been same sex pairings… Pandas are, it turns out, hard to sex. But attempts to breed them have continued, perpetuated by the idea that pandas are in trouble and that pandas are bad at creating more pandas. In fact, the main issue is pandas breeding in captivity. A zoo enclosure is not the most conducive environment, pandas are only fertile for a short period and often they’ve only just met their supposed partner, would you be in the mood?
In the wild, the picture is very different:
“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex, with a taste for flesh and a fearsome bite.”
– Lucy Cooke
In one afternoon, a wild panda can have sex over 40 times, and males have sperm which is much better quality than human males. Panda sex involves biting, barking and just the right about of submissive-dominant behaviour. Scent markings on specific trees provide other pandas with information about their sex, age, identity and fertility and males are attracted to female scent markings from far and wide. In response, males attempt to leave their own scent as high up a tree as possible, engaging in acrobatic poses to achieve this.
But still, we continue to attempt to get zoo pandas to breed and what I can only describe as baby panda factories are found in china which use a variety of methods to stimulate and fertilise pandas which would not know how to live in the wild and so can’t be released…
“It’s all about politics and money… Panda breeding is a full-time, multi-million dollar industry, particularly if one can convince the public that pandas are incapable of reproducing on their own.”
– Kati Loeffler
Despite this, China repeatedly uses the panda as a sign of their conservation work and commitment to the planet. These ambassadors for Asia are highly valued and have a long history. Panda diplomacy goes at least as far back as the 7th century when a pair of live pandas were presented to the rulers of Japan.
“The panda can be used to seal the deal and signify a bid for a long and prosperous relationship. If a panda is given to the country, it does not signify the closing of a deal – they have entrusted an endangered, precious anumak to the country; it signifies in some ways a new start to the relationship.”
– Kathleen Buckingham
There are many things we could take from this, but for me, the big message from the panda is that you shouldn’t take things on face value, especially in this era of fake news. Dig deeper, do your own research, look to sources that you trust. A more fun message is that you can’t tell how kinky someone is just by looking at them!
Turning to folktales, there is a lovely Tibetan story about how the panda was originally all white and how it got its black markings. Essentially a hurt cub was adopted by four shepardesses and a leopard wanted the panda for lunch. The shepardesses sacrificed themselves protecting the panda cub. When the other pandas heard, they were very upset and attended the funeral with their arms smeared with black ashes, as was customary locally. During the funeral they cried and when they wiped away their tears, their eyes became smudged with ash. Their ears turned black when they covered them because the other funeral guests were wailing loudly. When comforting each other with hugs, more black ash got transferred. In honour of the brave shepardesses, they vowed never to wash the ash from their fur. Then the ground shock and up from the graves, a mountain rose far into the sky, turning into four peaks. Ever since, the pandas have found safety in the arms of the four peaks, the arms of the four shepardesses.
Looking at the panda in the context of the Ace of Swords, we see again that this is a message about gathering information (or bamboo, whichever you need or prefer). The message in the deck is around the idea of distracting yourself from the problem you are trying to solve – by food or whatever else frees up your mind – and how this can often result in that lightbulb moment.
The sword suit is about the mental realm, it covers thinking and information and truth and communication and the slow and steady panda reminds us that these things often cannot be rushed. Take your time, enjoy the gathering stage, do what you need to do to get clarity.