Did you know that the American state of Mississippi formally ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on March 16, 1995, becoming the last state to approve the abolition of slavery, a well-nigh unbelievable 130 years after the amendment was passed by Congress in January 1865, ratified by the required 27 of the then 36 states in December and proclaimed on December 18 of that year?
And what has this to do with pandas?
Well, nothing, really – it’s simply the commonality of March 16 to these widely-differing events that links them. But I do think that there cannot be more than a handful of people in the United Kingdom who do not know what a panda looks like; and there cannot be very many who are unaware that it is an endangered species, its natural habitats in the mountain ranges of central China having been destroyed by the clearance of native forests to make land available for farming.
An animal with a number of unusual characteristics - its striking colouration, its five ‘fingers’ and a ‘thumb’, its reluctance to breed, its legendary slothfulness and its prodigious appetite – the panda has endeared itself to succeeding generations of European children … and adults … since a hunter sent a panda skin to the French missionary Armand David as recently as 1869.
It is thought that the first European actually to see a giant panda was the German zoologist Hugo Weigold in 1916; and the very first pandas to be seen in the United Kingdom arrived in London on 23 December, 1938. (I was just a year old back then.)
But, while many children … and not a few adults … would love a panda as a pet, it is worth remembering that they are big bears and, although not aggressive, will attack people if they are pestered.
But it is their prodigious appetite which discourages me from introducing one into my garden. Your average adult panda eats its way through the better part of a quarter-of-a-hundredweight of bamboo shoots every day – and younger readers may need to be told that this is about 12kg or 25lbs. of food.
Bamboo shoots are not very nutritious, which is why the panda needs so much; and this also explains the panda’s reluctance to expend large amounts of energy; it doesn’t have large amounts of energy to expend!
It also offers a further two reasons for my reluctance to keep one in my garden. It’s a messy animal to keep, for it defecates between 30 and 40 times each day; and I’ll need a very large garden indeed to harvest not far short of two cwts.* of bamboo shoots every week! And there’s the rub.
I can buy bamboo plants from my local garden centre; they will thrive in Scotland: but the species known as ‘running bamboos’ send long roots snaking underground … runners … and, once established, can be well-nigh impossible to eradicate.
So no, I won’t be planting bamboo, nor will there be any pandas calling my garden ‘home’; and, gentle reader, if you want to grow panda food, be sure you contain running bamboo in half-barrels.