Why Are We So Obsessed With the Panda Cam?

For many Americans, shutting down the U.S. government was one thing. But being cut off from a continuous feed of cute bears was quite another.

The National Zoo's yet-unnamed baby panda is looking flufflier than she did before the government shutdown began.
National Journal
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Marina Koren
Oct. 18, 2013, 11:32 a.m.

When the gov­ern­ment re­opened Thursday morn­ing, hun­dreds rushed hun­grily to their com­puters to check something the shut­down had kept them from for more than two weeks. They were not ne­ces­sar­ily the fur­loughed fed­er­al em­ploy­ees, pre­vi­ously barred from log­ging in­to their work email ac­counts, play­ing catch-up with bloated in­boxes. They were the den­iz­ens of the In­ter­net, who had gone far too long without their panda fix.

The Na­tion­al Zoo, along with the rest of the Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion, closed its doors Oct. 1 when the gov­ern­ment shut down. It took its fam­ous Gi­ant Panda Cam, an on­line live stream of the zoo’s most pop­u­lar res­id­ents, with it. Shut­ting down the U.S. gov­ern­ment for the first time in 17 years was one thing, the In­ter­net col­lect­ively roared, but cut­ting Amer­ica off from a con­tinu­ous feed of cute an­im­als was quite an­oth­er.

So, it came as no sur­prise that the zoo’s an­nounce­ment of the stream’s re­turn Thursday morn­ing, along with up­dates on the growth of the yet-un­named 8-week-old cub, daugh­ter of gi­ant panda Mei Xi­ang, was met with over­whelm­ing, bor­der­ing on ir­ra­tion­al, ex­cite­ment. “Time for happy tears!” com­men­ted one user on the zoo’s Face­book page. “Good to have things back to NOR­MAL” wrote an­oth­er. “The world is a much bet­ter place with panda cam back in op­er­a­tion!” said a third.

A CNN tick­er read “Gov’t re­opens, panda cam re­turns.”

With­in 10 minutes of the stream’s re­turn Thursday, the cam reached its full ca­pa­city for view­ers, 850 con­nec­tions, and stayed there all day, Na­tion­al Zoo spokes­wo­man Pamela Baker-Mas­son said. In Au­gust, days after the cub’s cel­eb­rated birth, de­mand stretched the web­site’s band­width enough for the zoo to in­state a view­ing lim­it of 15 minutes per user (people watch­ing us­ing the zoo’s smart­phone app can stream to their hearts’ de­sire). “I don’t be­lieve the Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion’s band­width will al­low for more con­nec­tions,” Baker-Mas­son said Fri­day af­ter­noon.

This won’t stop the panda cam’s grow­ing cult fol­low­ing. Amer­ica has be­come ob­sessed, and it’s easy to see why.

For hu­mans, ag­gress­ive re­sponses to cute­ness are the norm. A re­cent study found that par­ti­cipants who watched a slideshow of pho­tos deemed ad­or­able popped more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap than did par­ti­cipants who looked at funny or neut­ral pho­tos. Their re­ac­tion ex­plains why we want to “squish” something or “just eat it up” when it’s too cute for us mere mor­tals to handle. Out of con­text, these are rather vi­ol­ent re­sponses, but they are born of our ex­treme re­sponses to cute ob­jects, like baby pan­das.

The baby ele­ment is key here. Baby an­im­als and baby hu­mans share sim­il­ar fa­cial fea­tures, like chubby cheeks, over­size fore­heads, and big, vul­ner­able eyes, which trig­ger an an­cient pro­tect­ive mech­an­ism in hu­mans that makes us want to care for our off­spring. When baby an­im­als, es­pe­cially do­mest­ic­ated creatures like cats and dogs, grow older, they re­tain some of their ju­ven­ile-like fea­tures, a phe­nomen­on known as pe­do­morph­ism, enough to stay just as cute to us.

“I know this is a wild an­im­al. I real­ize we aren’t sup­posed to think of them this way,” a Face­book user wrote on the zoo’s page. “But”¦.I just want to CUDDLE THIS BABY!!”

Yes, hu­mans love cute things way too much. But stay­ing glued to the panda cam at the of­fice isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily a bad thing. Re­search sug­gests that look­ing at cute im­ages of baby an­im­als may im­prove our work per­form­ance. A 2009 study found that view­ing cute im­ages, such as of pup­pies and kit­tens, im­proved par­ti­cipants’ per­form­ance in a game of Op­er­a­tion. Ex­pos­ure to cute an­im­als, the au­thors con­cluded, boos­ted par­ti­cipants’ fo­cus, at­ten­tion to de­tail, and care­ful be­ha­vi­or.

The zoo stoked the na­tion’s panda fever fur­ther when it pos­ted a video of the cub, look­ing much fluf­fi­er than she did be­fore the shut­down began, on its Face­book page on Thursday. Re­ac­tions in­dic­ate Amer­ic­ans are glad their fa­vor­ite an­im­al cam (there are oth­ers, guys) is back. “I was afraid we were go­ing to miss those little eyes open but I’m just so happy to have her and Mom back,” wrote one user. “I hope she can hear all of us cheer­ing we’ve got her back. I SEE BABY NOW!!!!!”