When I was little, I wanted a panda for my birthday. Last August 22nd, which happened to be my birthday, the National Zoo, in Washington, sent out an alert on e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook: its female panda, the gentle Mei Xiang, had gone into labor. I signed onto the zoo’s Panda Cam just in time to hear an eek-y squeal from the back stall where Mei had built her nest. It was the birth yelp of a baby boy. A four-ounce butter stick, pink-skinned and blind, slipped from his mom’s womb and slid across the floor.

I asked the zoo’s staff to explain the public fixation on pandas. “With lions and tigers, you’re simply a meal. All they’re interested in is eating you,” Brandie Smith told me. “Pandas are different. When you look in their faces, there’s an intelligence and dependence. You have the feeling, ‘I could be friends with this bear. If we hung out, we’d have a good time.’ ”

There may be a scientific explanation, too, Smith added. “People talk about the power of awe. When you see something that brings awe, it produces oxytocin.” Oxytocin, sometimes known as the “love hormone,” influences emotion and social behavior. “It makes you feel more of a community person. It’s happiness and togetherness,” she said. “So when you have those moments of awe—and aww!—you are biochemically becoming a better person. That’s what pandas produce.”

Source: Excerpt from an article in the digital New Yorker – written by Robin Wright

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