People in Washington were saddened this week by the death of a local favorite. By all accounts, so were people much farther afield — as far away even as China, where the deceased was born 28 years ago. If that sounds young, it wasn’t: This was no scion of an American dynasty, no rising political star, no rock or movie icon cut off in his youth by drugs or daring. This was a big, old, sick mammal with rakish black eye patches and stubby limbs, who lived at the National Zoo and did nothing much all day except chow down on bamboo and Starbucks’ blueberry muffins and waddle about having his picture taken. This was Hsing-Hsing, Washington’s one remaining giant panda.

When the decision was taken last Sunday to euthanize Hsing-Hsing because he was suffering greatly from a variety of ailments, including arthritis and kidney failure, mourning in the U.S. capital was reportedly near-universal. The Washington Post wrote next day that “sadness at the loss of an old friend” was being expressed not just by the panda’s keepers and the city’s children, but by such normally unsentimental people as politicians, diplomats, businessmen and even reporters.

From one angle, such grief may seem disproportionate, even a touch hypocritical. Human beings’ love of animals is a notoriously selective thing. Just days before Hsing-Hsing was so tenderly “put to sleep,” tens of millions of Americans had sat down to Thanksgiving turkey dinners, oblivious to the thought of how inhumane, by comparison, the deaths of those creatures had been. In many countries, including Japan, pet owners treat their cats and dogs as if they were miniature people, but see no contradiction in routinely cooking and eating other, potentially lovable animals, such as chickens and pigs and cows, that have been raised and slaughtered en masse specifically for humans’ dining pleasure.

Equally irrationally, people adore guinea pigs, but poison rats; they pamper parrots, but blithely crunch the tiny bones of quails. Why such mourning over the painless death of one creature and such insensibility to the painful deaths of millions?

There is no explaining human whimsy with regard to animals, of course, except to surmise that it has something to do with the presence or absence of fur and/or pretty colors. A pig, they say, is as smart and funny as any panda once you get to know him, but let’s face it: With his looks, most people are going to prefer him in the form of bacon or “tonkatsu.” It may not be nice, but that is the way it is.

But there are other reasons besides his black-and-white fuzziness why Hsing-Hsing (like his companion Ling-Ling, who died in 1992) was so esteemed. In the first place, no giant panda is ordinary, given the species’ extreme rarity: Only 1,000 are estimated to be still living in the wild in China. But this pair was extraordinary even among that elite group. When the United States, under President Richard Nixon, recognized China in 1972, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were the quid pro quo, giving them instant iconic status in the nation’s capital. They were the symbols of a new and important relationship and did, in fact, help sustain it through some very rocky patches. For that reason alone, it would be a graceful diplomatic gesture if Beijing could see its way clear to replacing them.

Yet if politics made them special, it did not make them beloved. That they achieved all by themselves. Remarkably, back in 1972, no American thought for a second that there had been an unequal exchange; indeed, as far as Washington was concerned, it had got the better of the bargain. Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling made people feel better. They evoked feelings normally brought out only by babies — feelings of tenderness and protectiveness and amusement — because by virtue of a fortuitous physical illusion that is what they looked like: great, big, funny babies. When a giant panda rolls on its back waving its legs in the air, or sits on its bottom with its feet stuck out in front of it, stuffing itself with bamboo, or gets picky about its brand of blueberry muffins, it is just baby behavior writ very large and, therefore, the living definition of cute. The brain knows this is indefensible anthropomorphizing, but the heart knows that cuteness of such magnitude is beyond argument.

Hsing-Hsing lived a long, comfortable and even useful life and died the kind of painless assisted death that many human beings wish they could have. There is not much to mourn in that. Nevertheless, we understand Washington’s distress, and extend our sympathy.

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