Why do pandas find themselves the butt of so many jokes?

I think I’ve come up with the answer. On Friday, I spent the entire day at the Zoological Society of London’s library on the edge of Regent’s Park, where I pored over scrapbooks of press cuttings from the 1960s that mention Chi Chi, London Zoo’s most famous panda.

If – like me – you were not alive in the mid-1960s, it’s very hard to imagine just what a massive phenomenon Chi-Chi was at this time. These scrapbooks bring it home. There are three of them, they are A3 in size and their brittle pages are absolutely filled to the brim with these cuttings. There are snippets from an extraordinary range of British publications with marvellous names, like the Northampton Evening Telegraph, Swindon Advertiser, Worcester Evening News, Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Yorkshire Evening Press.

There are at least three impressive things about these thudding great scrapbooks:

  1. It’s amazing that anyone should have gone to these lengths to clip out all this stuff. It would be hard enough to do such a thorough job today, even with the internet and applications like Google Alerts. I’ve absolutely no idea how, in the 1960s, you’d have begun such a task.
  2. The press cuttings are taken almost exclusively from British newspapers, when this incident went global. So the scrapbooks represent merely a small fraction of the coverage this story got.
  3. The cuttings are taken over the course of just two years, from 1966 to 1968. The focus was on Chi-Chi’s relationship with the “Soviet” panda An-An. “No Czar on the evening of nation-uniting nuptials ever gained more publicity,” wrote John Hillaby in New Scientist in 1966 as Chi-Chi flew out to Moscow. What’s clear from the deluge of news stories about this unproductive fling is that the headline writers, columnists and particularly cartoonists had an absolute field day. The opportunity to satirise the affair was so tempting that the two pandas soon became the butt of many, very excellent jokes.

My favourite cartoon appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 10 November 1968 just before An-An returned from London to Moscow Zoo after another unsuccessful liason. A thuggish looking man sits in a cage. He is wearing a panda suit, has removed the head and is speaking into a walkie-talkie. The caption reads: “Hello Moscow, this is An-An. They’re sending me home. I have failed on my mission but I’ve contacted two gorillas who could be useful to the organisation.” This and dozens of other gems, reveal what a farce these two pandas became. This was the first really high-profile instance of what we now know so well – that captive pandas are extremely unenthusiastic breeders.

The level of coverage of Chi-Chi and An-An, I believe, embedded the giant panda deeply in public’s psyche as a faintly ridiculous species that is fair game. This is not to say that comedians like Ricky Gervais would not have made panda gags without this historical episode, because of course they would.

But maybe sending up pandas would not have been strong or so coherent a tradition.

No sex please, we’re pandas