Sometimes, while out on the job, I have to pinch myself and think, ‘hold on to this moment.’ Because the moments that make up my workday can be truly fabulous.
Here’s what last week’s pinch was for: I was squatting on the ground at the Bifengxia panda base in central China, on a cloudy but pleasantly warm October morning, snapping pictures of some of the 18 tiny panda cubs that were lurching around in the grass. How tempting to reach a hand into that panda pile, but I held back, as I hadn’t gotten permission to pet them. Instead, I put my chin down low to the ground to watch the cubs at their level. One of them pulled itself toward me, checking me out with wide eyes and squeaking for attention as it would to its mother. It was, indeed, a very good moment.
At times like that, I don’t even try to keep my own squishy-happy-heart sounds to myself. The latest term I’ve heard for this feeling and the noise that accompanies it is “squee” (thanks, Facebook), and on panda-kindergarten day I was squeeing all over the place. (Not as messy as it sounds.) In fact, I’d say it was totally within my job description, right then, to squee.
Writing about animals is great fun, but actually being with them, close enough to notice a musky scent or a broken claw, is what makes it all worthwhile. And by “it all” I mean the achingly long flights, the lost bags, the buggy accommodations and stinky clothes, the I-really-hope-that’s-chicken dinners, the mouse poop that comes home in your suitcase, the traveler’s diarrhea, the time away from family.
Because while going “on assignment” for National Geographic is always an adventure, the romantic image of fieldwork that many people have is at least two-thirds fantasy. Typically much of a trip is exhausting and frustrating and unpredictable. You run on adrenaline and instant coffee; you’re bone cold one second and burning up the next, and your body never stops crying out for a bath and real rest. (You’d settle for one; usually, you get neither.) You slouch, you brush your teeth with your (questionably clean) finger, you stop caring that you smell bad. And how much time you actually spend with the creatures you’re writing about is rarely up to you.
Then, when it’s over, after a painfully long trip home, you crash. Hard. You shake roaches from your balled-up laundry and ask yourself, ‘what just happened?’ It takes days or even weeks to put anything into perspective.
Still, I’m grateful for every experience and especially for the animals I meet. They keep me going. They’re my heart’s nourishment, the reason I do what I do. Because of them I sometimes stop and look around and think, yes. This. Definitely this.
In recent weeks I’ve spent hours crouched in the dirt watching pandas be pandas—sleeping belly up with legs in the air, crunching bamboo stalks with yellow teeth (after fussily picking through the pile for the “best” pieces), slumping over, relaxed, in teddy-bear-on-a-shelf position. They really do, like other bears and large hairy men, rub their itchy backs in a comical vertical dance against sharp edges. Panda moms teach their young to climb trees, patiently going up and down. Cubs follow, then scoot out on bouncy limbs, learning their limits. Sometimes one topples to the ground before that lesson takes hold.
I’ve most loved observing new moms cuddling their cubs-of-the-year, patiently nursing, licking faces and tummies, responding to every little cry with big, gentle paws and a soft mouth. Meanwhile, no matter how careworn they seem, mama pandas with “toddlers” truly play with their young, chasing and wrestling around in a way I’ve rarely seen in other non-human animals. They don’t just tolerate baby antics; they encourage them. They also separate overzealous games between siblings in a very familiar way. The mother-cub relationship could make a childless-by-choice person reconsider.
Now, there are always bitter bites in these sweet assignments: Here, it’s that these particular pandas are captives for life. And like at a zoo, they get bored, they pace, sometimes they fling their heads back or cry out in agitation. Their enclosures are mostly hard and utilitarian—with back yards that I wish were larger. I know many people hate the idea of animals behind bars, even when those animals seem at peace (which these bears do a lot of the time). It’s a touchy subject, and my own feelings about it—revisited with every assignment—are complicated.
But saving animals nowadays often means managing animals—it’s too late to leave them alone—and for the giant panda it also means breeding them. And even as I feel a little sorry for the mother bear peering through the bars, I remember that she’s part of the solution, a contributor to the science of panda making, a step along the way to growing the wild population and refreshing its tired DNA. In the mountainous Wolong panda reserve, where I am headed next, bears are born (in captivity) to be wild—trained for solo survival so they can be released into Chinese nature reserves. Within weeks, in fact, Wolong staff will transport a two-year-old bear to a bamboo forest reserve and set it free—a big squee moment if ever there was one.
Pandas are, of course, just one in a long line of species struggling to survive out there. For a writer about animals, the sheer number of creatures crying for help and resources is deafening. Sometimes I am simply overwhelmed; in wanting to make a difference for all of them, I worry I’ll end up crying in a corner, helping none.
So I’m grateful that, while on the job and in the field, I have permission to focus on just one. This time, I get to see pandas as singular, as deserving, and for a little while above all others. I’m in China to learn what people are doing to save this bear and to share its stories in the best way I know how.
Next time around my attention will turn to frogs or giraffes or storks, and I’ll reset my heart’s dial. But today, I get to kneel down and look into the eyes of this one beautiful animal, a representative of one endangered species, and promise to do my very best on her behalf.
It’s hard to section off the heart this way, but it lets me do my job. Over and over again. And hopefully, that makes a difference.
Plus, well, pandas. What’s not to squee about?
Photos by the author, taken at Bifengxia panda base, Sichuan Province, China. Top: Three-month-old cub; bottom: panda mother and cub (that cotton ball is his little furry butt).