LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) Bill McShea is an ecologist who has worked at the National Zoo’s facility in Front Royal, Virginia, since 1986. He is also the Smithsonian’s “panda guy.”

But he doesn’t share in the public’s love affair with giant pandas. You know, the one that spawns endless social media chatter about Bao Bao and hour-long lines for the zoo’s indoor giant panda exhibit.

“I have to let you know, I’m not so enamored with pandas,” McShea said at a TED talk in D.C. recently. “To me, they’re an average animal. If I was a professor, I would say they’re a solid B. No better, no worse.”

But he recognizes that most people don’t feel that way.

“How many of you have looked at the panda web cam, the panda cam, in the last week? ” he asked the audience. They cheered.

“If I said the name Bao Bao, how many of you would know that that’s the name of the baby panda? You are the same people who do not know the name of the person sitting next to you in your Monday morning class, yet you know the names of all the giant pandas at the National Zoo.” The crowd laughed knowingly.

He went on to speak about what he calls “panda sickness,” a modern obsession with panda bears despite the fact that they are, as he says, just bears.

Are they endangered? Yes. But that’s been true for a long time, and lots of other animals are endangered, too, he explained. Are they rare in captivity? Actually, not so much these days, he says. Is it their coloration? Well, lots of other species of bears are also black and white.

So what’s the deal?

Well, McShea concluded, “they have value because you gave them value. They are the Bitcoin of the natural world.”

And that’s good, he says, because they are now “the most protected animal on this planet.” By “leasing” pandas to zoos in other countries, China has raised millions of dollars to build and improve panda reserves. Several other rare species that thrive in a similar habitats are protected as a result.

The fascination with the panda is baffling, as far as McShea is concerned, but “your love… is saving the world,” he told the crowd. “And for that, I say thank you.”

Watch the full TED talk below.


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