Human beings are a cruelly fickle lot, especially when it comes to animals. Take two stories circulating on the Web last week, both out of Washington, D.C. and both concerning bears.

In recent weeks, the U.S. capital has been collectively riveted by the giant panda cub born at the National Zoo in early July. Just the fourth infant panda in the United States — and the zoo’s first — to survive this long, the small bear is treated like royalty. There are many good reasons why. Giant pandas are massively endangered and increasingly rare. Both the cub and its parents are in the U.S. only temporarily, on loan from China. Above all, the little male panda is impossibly cute, with its miniature trademark black eye patches, round Mickey Mouse ears and raspy squeal. The public cannot get enough of it, downloading videos of its physical examinations and participating en masse in a naming contest. (For the record, the winner was Tai Shan, or “peaceful mountain” in Chinese.)

The mountains weren’t so peaceful for another bear in the news last week. It was a black bear from Maryland, a state adjacent to the capital area that is overpopulated with the species and thus had decided last year to resume a limited annual hunt after a half-century ban. This particular bear had the misfortune not only to be the first one shot this season but to be shot by an eight-year-old girl. Washingtonians were treated to photos of the child posing with her trussed and bloodied prey and headlines celebrating the year’s first kill. The bear looked as if it might have been as cute as the panda, when it was alive.

We know there has always been hunting, just as there have long been zoos (one could argue that neither of them does human beings much credit). And we know hunting is socially acceptable in rural communities in many countries, including Japan. Still, we don’t envy Washington parents having to explain to their confused children why they shouldn’t be shocked by those photos from Maryland. Not to mention how contingent a quality cuteness is.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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