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
Marina Koren
See more stories about...
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!!!!!”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4517) }}

What We're Following See More »
White House Looks Back on bin Laden Mission
1 hours ago
SCOTUS Won’t Hear Appeal of Minimum-Wage Law
2 hours ago

"The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a sweeping constitutional challenge to Seattle’s minimum wage law, in what could have been a test case for future legal attacks on similar measures across the country. In a one-line order, the justices declined to hear a case by the International Franchise Association and a group of Seattle franchisees, which had said in court papers that the city’s gradual wage increase to $15 discriminates against them in a way that violates the Constitution’s commerce clause."

Sanders Looks to Right the Ship in Indiana
2 hours ago

Hillary Clinton may have the Democratic nomination sewn up, but Bernie Sanders apparently isn't buying it. Buoyed by a poll showing them in a "virtual tie," Sanders is "holding three rallies on the final day before the state primary and hoping to pull off a win after a tough week of election losses and campaign layoffs." 

DC to Release Draft Constitution as Part of Statehood Push
3 hours ago

"The New Columbia Statehood Commission—composed of five District leaders including Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C.'s congressional delegation—voted today to publicly release a draft of a new constitution for an eventual state next Friday, at the Lincoln Cottage." It's the first step in a statehood push this year that will include a constitutional convention in June and a referendum in November.

Will Ferrell Bails on Reagan Movie
3 hours ago

Amid outcry by President Reagan's children, actor Will Ferrell has pulled out of a movie that makes light of Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. A spokesperson for Ferrell said, “The ‘Reagan’ script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project."