13 min read

​Forced Motherhood: The Tragic Story Of Tian Tian, The Giant Panda

For the third year running, the panda PR machine at Edinburgh Zoo appears to have run out of steam after months of renewed hype surrounding female panda, Tian Tian. In recent days, the zoo has been forced to announce that, despite concerted efforts at imposing a pregnancy forcibly on Tian Tian, and despite talking about little else for the entire summer, there will be no pitter patter of tiny panda paws this year.

In mid-April, zoo officials took the decision, for the second year in a row, to knock both giant pandas under their care unconscious. Male panda, Yang Guang was manually ejaculated and his sperm used to impregnate the comatose Tian Tian. This move was, according to the zoo, "necessary" because the pair had not mated naturally.

One newspaper report at the time entitled "How to Get a Panda Pregnant" draws on comparisons between Tian Tian's situation and that of the zoo director and his wife. The national paper reported that, happily, the director is due to become a father after years of trying for a baby which, it is stated gives him "something in common with Tian Tian and Yang Guang." This is not the first time that the pandas have been compared to a human couple trying for a baby; similar comments have become a constant theme since the pandas arrived on U.K. soil.

But the persistent references to Tian Tian as the equivalent of one part of a happy couple trying, through consensual agreement, to bring a child into this world is a fantasy. The reality for Tian Tian is far from the love story that the zoo would have us believe.

In the interest of clarity, what follows is a summary of how things have panned out for Tian Tian and Yang Guang over the last few years.

Tian Tian was shipped over from China to Scotland in late 2011 following years of political negotiations between the two nations. On arrival, and amidst much fanfare, she was placed in her purpose-built enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo. Next door to Tian Tian, Yang Guang, a male giant panda who was soon to be cast in the comic role of "hapless suitor" by the international press due to his "failure" to impregnate Tian Tian, also began his ten-year internment.

Yuan Guang, cast as the "hapless suitor." Photo: Welshdan (Creative Commons License)

Despite being peddled to the public and press as a ground-breaking conservation initiative, a government official confirmed that the "panda deal" was "primarily a commercial transaction". Naturally solitary animals, Tian Tian and Yang Guang were subjected to almost constant scrutiny from the moment they arrived. 810,937 visitors reportedly passed through the zoo in their first year, some of those during specially-arranged "out of hours" panda experiences so that even the time during which the zoo was normally closed offered the bears little respite. The zoo's income, however, reached record highs.

During the first year, the pandas were allowed to exercise control over one of the very few choices left to them in lives which are otherwise managed and manipulated in almost every way imaginable. The pandas chose, for one reason or another, and whether consciously or otherwise, not to procreate. The zoo at this point seemed calm, stating good-naturedly in press that "there was always next year".

The following year and there was a distinct sense of panic about the "courtship" (as it was affectionately referred to in press). This time, when the bears failed to copulate through choice, both were knocked unconscious and Tian Tian was forcibly impregnated with semen from both Yuan Guang and a dead panda whose sperm had been frozen in advance.

After months of speculation, the zoo announced that Tian Tian had been pregnant, but had either "aborted" or "absorbed" the foetus. No reason was given for why this might have happened but an aside in an article printed earlier this year suggested it might have been caused by stress; which seems a perfectly reasonable analysis in the circumstances.

Undeterred by both the panda's apparent lack of desire to mate naturally with one another and the fact that Tian Tian had miscarried a baby, the zoo became ever-more determined to hear the pitter patter of panda paws. By this spring, the pressure was really on. The zoo wanted its baby panda and, if that meant attempting to force motherhood on Tian Tian for a second time, then so be it. So after it was deemed that, for the third year running, Tian Tian and Yuang Guang were not going to see to the zoo's problem through choice, it was back onto the operating table with both of them with zoo bosses taking matters into their own hands.

And now, following reams of publicity for the zoo in press over the summer, Edinburgh has, once again, begun the climb-down and admitted that there is no baby panda on the way. But, despite Tian Tian having now endured two forced pregnancies and two rumoured miscarriages, zoo officials have vowed that they are "in it for the long haul" and will "try again next year".

Leading animal protection groups have called upon them to spare Tian Tian further invasive procedures.

Panda expert, Dr. Kati Loeffler, spoke out against the perpetual captive breeding of the species in recent years, saying:

The interest for pandas is stated to be conservation of the species. However, all effort is going into captive breeding. The animals born in captivity in China are raised in a highly human-dominated environment with severe environmental and psycho-behavioural challenges to the development of the animals. These individuals are not normal pandas, nor will they ever be. The argument for captive breeding is to raise a stock population for reintroduction into the wild. Reintroduction is entirely inappropriate for several reasons, the greatest of which is that there are no adequate, demonstrated efforts in China to restore, much less to preserve, the habitats that pandas need for their continued existence on the planet. Before this is established, enforced and proven to develop, there is no room for anyone to be talking about reintroduction
Tian Tian by Andrew Pescod (Creative Commons License)

But while the press and the public continue to clamor for a baby panda, it seems Tian Tian will be subjected year-on-year to forced impregnation. If she does carry a baby to full-term, he or she will be shipped to China after two years and likely fielded out to another zoo as part of the country's ongoing "panda diplomacy". And so the sorry cycle will begin again with generation after generation of pandas being born to a life in captivity as the zoos profit and the Chinese government is paid handsomely in return for the loan of these living, breathing commodities.

Breeding pandas in captivity will not save the species. Yes, panda babies are adorable and the chance of seeing one of these bundles of joy in real life is unarguably appealing. But before jumping on the bandwagon to lament the second failed pregnancy and wish the zoo luck in its efforts in coming years, please spare a thought for Tian Tian.

Please, let her retain one of the lamentably few things that she has control over in her otherwise minutely-managed and wholly unnatural life. No-one, be they human or non-human animal, should have motherhood forcibly imposed upon them. Please, just leave her be.


Cover photo source: Panda in San Diego Zoo by Tinyfroglet (Creative Commons License)