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Kai Ryssdal: When you think about products that are made in China, these days it's usually words like "toxic" and "dangerous" that spring to mind. Not "rare" and "cute." But that would be forgetting about one of Chinas most popular exports: the giant panda.
Four zoos in the United States have them on loan. They're always crowd favorites. Especially when they have babies. Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo is expecting her fourth cub sometime this month. But cute or not, they rack up a hefty bill. From Washington, home to 3 of the 12 pandas in the United States, Jeremy Hobson reports now on Pandanomics.
Jeremy Hobson: After 9/11, visitor traffic at the National Zoo plummeted. Years went by, and nothing seemed to draw people back.
Until 2005, when the baby panda was born.
[Sound of baby panda squealing]
Now, you can listen to Tai Shan's baby squeals by pressing a button in the zoo's panda house.
After the birth, the zoo's attendance skyrocketed almost to where it was pre-9/11. And the zoo says fully 80 percent of the visitors were coming to see the pandas.
Mary Tanner: All right, where's our baby? Here he comes!
That's National Zoo deputy director Mary Tanner. Baby Tai Shan is taking a break from playtime in his yard and coming inside for some fresh bamboo.
Tanner: It's so funny to watch him come in and he's such a big boy now. But he was so cute when he was little . . .
He's still pretty cute, and pretty spoiled, too.
The National Zoo, with the help of private and corporate money, has put the pandas in its brand new Asia Trail, which is like the Ritz of zoo exhibits — there are chilled boulders, fog machines to make visitors feel like they're in China and air-conditioned caves for the pandas.
Tanner: They obviously like nice, cool spots. You'll see Tien in his cave, sitting in air-conditioned comfort now.
Hobson: And they obviously like all their colors to match?
Tanner: They like all their colors to match.
The cost of this fancy new color-coordinated exhibit, the loans, the caretakers and all the rest — just $20 million. And here's the kicker: zoos aren't allowed to make much profit on the bears.
Ginnette Hemley with the World Wildlife Fund says that's because of what happened in the late 1980s, which she calls the "rent-a-panda" period.
Ginnette Hemley: The Chinese knew they had a cash cow on their hands. They were sending pandas out all over the world because zoos were willing to pay exorbitant fees, because people love pandas.
The Toledo Zoo used panda profits to build a parking lot, which was the bamboo stick that broke the panda's back, if you will. The World Wildlife Fund and others sued, and now, most of the profits, if there are any, have to go to panda conservation.
Hemley says the same goes for the millions zoos pay China to rent the pandas.
Hemley: A lot of money is trading hands, but I think we're on a much better footing than we were 10 or 15 years ago, in that we do know that money is going back into the conservation of pandas in China. And for us, that's the bottom line.
But what about the bottom line for zoos? Why put up with all the costs if you're not going to make much money?
I asked Dave Towne, former President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, what he would tell a zookeeper trying to get a panda.
Dave Towne: Don't do it. If your objective is to break even or make a profit, there's almost no chance of that happening.
Even with a baby panda, he says. U.S. zoos say they see a big spike in attendance after a birth, but Towne says it doesn't last.
Towne: The cuteness wears off a little bit very quickly.
Still, two of the U.S. zoos lucky enough to have had panda births charge admission, and they enjoyed a temporary spike in ticket sales. The National Zoo is free, and its attendance hasn't fallen off since Tai Shan was born.
Crowd: Oh, oh he's eating . . . aw . . . there he goes.
And all those visitors still bring their wallets and load up with plenty of panda products. If you're looking for the National Zoo's gift shop, by the way, it's right across from the panda exhibit. You can't miss it.
In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.