FOR $150, I COULD hold a panda for 20 seconds. For $300, I could play with some one-and-a-half-year-old pandas for about two minutes. And for almost $1000, I could play with six-month-old panda cubs for about five minutes.
I was standing in a shack in the middle of the Bifengxia panda reserve, located in the western mountains of China’s Sichuan province. We were a two-hour drive from the regional capital of Chengdu and a much longer flight to my home in New York.
All major credit cards were accepted, although as my local guide Sophie had explained, due to our elevation, the connection sometimes didn’t work. “But don’t worry,” she said, sending a text on her iPhone. “I’ve got plenty of cash.”
In the end, I went for the $300 option. My Visa worked perfectly.
The Bifengxia reserve provided a golf cart. Our driver was a young man sporting punked-out hair and glistening white high-tops. After a short drive past a sign saying “Staff Only,” we got out beside a tin shack in a dark grove of high trees. The guy spritzed my hands with anti-bacterial lotion, then handed me a blue surgical gown that barely dampened the bright yellow glow of the t-shirt I’d put on that morning, thin plastic gloves, and two blue booties. He told me (via Sophie’s translation) that I could pet the pandas on the shoulder or back, but not the ears or face.
“You should plan what you will do,” Sophie said. “You have only a limited time.”
I asked how many times she’d been there before. Many, many times, she said.
“Have you ever touched the pandas?” I asked.
“No, never. It is too expensive. Only take pictures for tourists like you.”
“I see,” I said, feeling stupid for asking.
I followed Sophie into the unlit corrugated tin shed where six young pandas clambered up to the bars. Their caretaker, a woman with weathered skin, yelled at them in high, clipped tones and threw them bits of carrot and “panda cake,” which resembled slices of meatloaf but were actually dense biscuit.
The pandas poked their mitts and noses through their cage, and even grabbed hold of the bars to pull themselves upright. I was close enough that I could have touched their claws and paws, though suddenly I felt very shy, even a bit scared. These were not teddy bears. They were wild animals and they were hungry.
A sliding door opened at the other end of the shed. Sophie said, “We’re going in.”
Squinting, I walked into the harsh white light. Directly in front of me sat a one-and-a-half-year-old panda, munching on a panda cake.
Now I understood Sophie’s advice about making a plan of what to do first, but I was so flustered I couldn’t decide, and time was running short. So I knelt down behind the panda and touched the top of its head.
The panda glanced at me, then turned back to his cake. He (if he was a he — in my disorientation, I forgot to ask the sex) spilled crumbs that tumbled down his lap onto the slate floor of the enclosure, covered in green lichen and loose straw.
Through my thin plastic glove, I rubbed the panda’s fur, which was bristly like a hairbrush, not at all fluffy like the stuffed animals in the souvenir stalls.
“Maybe you can change some posture,” Sophie suggested, flashing pictures with my camera. “Because panda will not change. Only you change.”
I crouched down on the tips of my toes and leaned closer, massaging the bear’s solid neck and the thick black stripe on his back. His tufted black ears, sticking straight up, were tempting targets, but I avoided them.
“Here comes another panda,” said Sophie.
Dazed, I looked all around until I spotted a second panda crawling toward us, lured by the caretaker, who made loud noises and waved a panda cake.
I recited the line of Chinese I’d learned — “hen k’ai” or “very cute” — to the caretaker, who nodded quickly, her eyes fixed on the two bears’ every move. Then I went around to the second one, tried to think of what to do or say. All I came up with was: “Hey, whatcha doin?”
After giving a wary once-over, the panda pursued a chunk of panda cake that had rolled down his chubby stomach. I knelt down to pat his back, when suddenly the young bear swatted at the tip of my hospital gown. A friendly invitation to play? Or maybe the panda equivalent of “quit bothering me while I’m eating”? His paw grazed my fingertips, and I felt his claws, hard and sharp.
“Okay, our time is over,” said Sophie.
Two minutes and twenty-four seconds, according to my iPhone.
On our way out, I stopped by a bathroom with a Turkish-style toilet. I washed my hands, which were still trembling, then waited for Sophie who had to go into the office for a minute before we left the park. She came back out with a little golden pen stating that I was a “member” of the Bifengxia Reserve Club.
As we rode back down the mountain to return to my hotel in Chengdu, I was still haunted by my encounter. For months before this day, I’d been keyed up for the moment, worried about some last-minute snafu, but everything had gone perfectly. Yet instead of elated, I felt stunned, overwhelmed, even a bit ridiculous.
Back in Chengdu, Sophie wanted to know my plans for the evening. Was I interested in a traditional Sichuan dinner? An authentic stage performance with Chinese masks? A Chinese massage girl? She could arrange anything I wanted.
Though my husband would probably have gotten a good laugh at the thought of me fending off the services of a Chinese massage girl, I politely declined her offers. Sophie gave me a funny look, then left me alone.
Staring out my hotel room window at the city highrises, I thought about the role I’d played in this crazy industry that turned pandas into photo ops for tourists like me.
Perhaps the bears didn’t mind our visits. Also, the money I’d paid — at least some of it — helped to take care of these animals, their caretakers, and guides like Sophie. I hadn’t hurt anyone.
And yet, as beautiful as these animals were, there seemed something silly and stale in the exercise. I’d gotten a hint of it in Sophie’s weary tone on my first morning at Chengdu airport, and in the endless parade of panda-themed merchandise that greeted me throughout China. There are plenty of other creatures in the world who could use even a small portion of the dollars those adorable bears bring in, including a few million starving Chinese citizens in remote areas of the country where no tourists go. But unlike pandas, they lack the good fortune of being marketed as ‘cute.’