Saturday, September 29, 2012

Still Life With Robin: The Miracle That Wasn't

credit Natl Zoo photographer Jessie Cohen
Peggy Robin

In last Saturday's column I gushed ecstatically about the birth of the panda cub at the National Zoo. The next morning I learned that the six-day-old cub had died. It's now been six more days since the sad announcement from the National Zoo -- enough time to take in the loss of a baby animal we never really knew. When I finished crying (although I am not really sure that I have finished), I had to tell myself squarely that I was overreacting. Panda cubs, whether in the wild or in zoos, are impossibly fragile creatures. Ling Ling, Mei Xiang's predecessor at the National Zoo, lost all five of her cubs.  The survival rate of pandas in the wild to the age of three is perhaps as low as 33 percent.

While you can tell yourself these things, making yourself change your feelings is something else. The Zoo staff put out a statement that while calmly stating the facts about the cub's death as known at the time, freely expressed the depth of the pain they were going through: "We're still reeling from the loss of our giant panda cub, and we feel like the whole world is mourning with us. Our staff is anguished, which is to be expected. Every loss is hard but this one is especially devastating....  We still don't know definitively what caused us to lose the giant panda cub yesterday, but we do have some more information since yesterday, especially from the necropsy (animal autopsy)."

I don't usually expect such an outpouring of emotion from a government agency but in this case it was good to see it. These are people who so clearly love the animals they work with.  For those of us who are mere bystanders, who only hoped to visit the panda from time to time, the question is, can we really fall so deeply in love in a mere six days?

I'm taking my answer from John Kelly, the Washington Post Metro columnist who, when he first heard of the baby panda's birth, was so bouncy and buoyant on the subject that he wrote up the birth story in his column as a panda version of the miracle of the Nativity (or, as some objected, a blasphemous parody of the Nativity story -- see

The following week, brought grimly back down to earth by the death, he asked, "Can you 'love' a panda cub you've never met? No, I don't think you can, really." But he had some other thoughts on why we were hit so hard by this loss: "A panda is not a human. A cub is not a baby. There's only so sad we should allow ourselves to be. But still, that's pretty sad. The older I get, the more I'm struck by the pitiless coin that is human life. On one side is our amazing resilience. The body can take a lot before the soul leaves it. Just ask any emergency room doctor. On the other side is the equally true fact that life is amazingly fragile, able to be snuffed out as quickly as a candle in a draft. It's that second quality that the loss of 'our' panda cub reminds me of."

His suggestion for the best way to react to this loss: "But there are plenty of people around you can love -- you do love. Tell them that."

I can't improve on that advice.

(John Kelly's full column is at


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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