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National Zoo, Save Mei Xiang

Washington is a panda-obsessed city.  We have two of them at the National Zoo — Mei Xiang and Tian Tian — and they have a large and frequently-trafficked habitat.  The twins and I always stop by to visit them while we’re at the zoo (though, admittedly, we spend the bulk of our time with the tree shrew in the small mammal house.  You have never seen a child love a tree shrew so intensely until you have spent time with the ChickieNob and her small mammal friend), and we have many photographs of panda bear bums since they are frequently sleeping with their faces turned away from the masses.

The Washington Post announced today that they may replace Mei Xiang because she and her mate, Tian Tian, have only produced one child, Tai Shan (who was born when the twins were one).  It’s a case of secondary infertility, meaning in this case, an inability to get pregnant after prior success with fertility treatments the first time around.  Tai Shan was an IUI-baby.  Since his birth, she had five prior failed inseminations, and they are currently waiting to see if this last one took.  It was performed Sunday when the two pandas were unable to have sex.

I read the news this morning and it made me feel strangely sad; disproportionally sad, maybe because I anthropomorphized them and identified so clearly with their plight.  I am an infertile woman who was successful with treatments the first time around.  And I am an infertile woman who has not been able to get pregnant again since.  I couldn’t help but believe that I knew what Mei Xiang was feeling; two girls unable to get to implantation.  And beyond that, I took on the message that was being inadvertently given by the researchers who want another cub: that Mei Xiang is worthless if she can’t reproduce.  She is replaceable in the largest sense of the word.  They are considering sending her back to China and getting a new panda for the zoo.

The comments are exactly what you’d imagine for a story like this: suggestions of Barry White and wine and soft lights and porn.  Maybe I can’t take a joke; or maybe their situation hits a little too close to home for me; makes me wonder how the rest of the world views me as a woman since I too am unable to reproduce.  I too am of little worth?  As one commenter states, “Critters that don’t want to get freaky and make babies don’t deserve to survive. No matter how cute they are.”  And it called forth all the times someone has cruelly pointed out that maybe there’s a reason I can’t reproduce; maybe it’s nature’s way of saying I shouldn’t produce offspring.

National Zoo, save Mei Xiang.  Please.  I know that “Scientists there have been deeply disappointed because they have focused intense research on panda reproduction.”  And if that is the case, I know that Mei Xiang is not fulfilling your need.  But on behalf of all the women in Washington experiencing secondary infertility, whether it comes after a successful round of prior treatments or after an easily conceived first child(ren), I implore you to consider the message you are sending to the public in the name of research.

We are not as obvious as primary infertility or living child-free.  We are, in fact, quite invisible, blending with the other mothers in the car pick-up lane at school.  Unless you know our personal story, you would never guess that we are unable to reproduce without assistance.  But we are just as infertile as women without children.  Infertility is a condition that isn’t cured with children; the disease remains whether you are family building or not.  All infertility is devastating, even if that woman has a prior child to hold.

And sometimes it makes us hear a completely innocent story about a panda at the zoo and identify deeply.

Photo Credit: Marit and Toomas Hinnosaar via Flickr


1 Tireegal { 05.01.12 at 12:39 am }

This is a brilliant post. And I’m your first comment! Please send it to the zoo powers that be. I can really relate, being a dyed on the wool anthropomorphist and a definite secondary infertile.

2 Tireegal { 05.01.12 at 12:40 am }

In not on!

3 Kacey { 05.01.12 at 1:04 am }

The other thing about secondary infertility are the constant questions about when you’re going to give your child a sibling or what a great brother/sister he/she would make. I’ve gotten to the point where I will just openly burst into tears because trying to change the subject, or saying something non-commital doesn’t make them stop and if I say something like “we’re working on it” or “we’re hoping someday” I get bombarded with a series of questions that becomes more inappropriate/personal/occasionally downright offensive by the second. Tears seem to at least shame/stun them into silence.

4 May { 05.01.12 at 1:42 am }

Poor Mei Xiang. Why can’t they keep her for the entirely wonderful reason that she’s a PANDA, and therefore both rare and adorable? Isn’t that what zoos are for too? I mean, the zoo wants pandas, she IS a panda, win win. Just as the world generally wants decent, kind, thoughtful, clever, politically engaged people OH LOOK IT’S GOT SOME RIGHT HERE. Already. The whole ‘a being’s worth is down to its reproductive ability’ shtick is, well, it gives me hives.

5 Mina { 05.01.12 at 2:55 am }

Oh, dear, I wish I could hug you! Big, panda bear hug!
It is unfair and cruel. To anyone. I hope Mei Xiang is not discarded just like that. And you should know better, you mean more than just one label. But I do agree that secondary infertility must make anyone’s life quite awful. Invisible pain is heartbreaking. Unfair and cruel.

6 jjiraffe { 05.01.12 at 4:30 am }

Aww! This makes me sad AND mad. 1) Why should a beloved animal be considered expendable because she didn’t have enough babies? 2) They are going to take her away from her child and mate just so they can bring in some other, fertile female panda? Who came up with this idea, anyway? Rush Limbaugh? I am anthropomorphizing way more than this calls for, but it SUCKS! What are parents supposed to tell their kids about why Mei Xiang is gone?

7 Ellie { 05.01.12 at 5:12 am }

I’m sorry. I’m sure this isn’t what you needed. All Panda’s aside my parents are already asking about future siblings for a 3 month old fetus conceived through IUI. I’m pretty sure I just want to get to home plate with this little one. My mom has said to me that maybe we would get pregnant naturally now. There’s never any real answers to give since I can’t ovulate.
As a person who knows several zoo people, I want you to know that it would not be a light decision to send Mei Xiang anywhere. There are many tears when an animal is moved but often it’s for the benefit of the animal and their species. I hope that if they do participate in a breeding program, Mei Xiang will find a mate she was meant to be with…to snuzzle and love. It must be hard on a Panda to have an arranged marrigae.

8 gwinne { 05.01.12 at 6:56 am }

This is a great post, more for what it says about secondary infertility than what it says about pandas! I also dealt with secondary IF after primary IF, and even within this community have read comments on blogs about how women who have “succeeded” and had children should remember how awful it is and not bring children to an RE’s office…which is completely blind to the fact that if she is bringing a child to an RE’s office she *hasn’t* succeeded at all, but still needs to be there. The other special brand of cruelty that secondary IF inflicts can be the older child constantly asking for a sibling (mine did, for the entire three years I was undergoing treatment again).

No, as an egg donor mama the second time around, I agree completely: having a child definitely does not cure infertility.

9 serenity { 05.01.12 at 7:37 am }

This makes me incredibly sad.

10 loribeth { 05.01.12 at 8:37 am }

I know that pandas don’t breed well in captivity, but never thought about it from this angle. And you’re so right, Mel!

As an aside — we had a pair of pandas visit the Toronto Zoo the year we got married. They were a huge attraction — we stood in line 45 minutes to see them. And when we finally got to the front of the line — they were asleep. Oh well — they’re zoo animals, not performing circus bears. I hear they may be bringing them (well, another pair of pandas) back soon.

11 a { 05.01.12 at 10:42 am }

What May and jjiraffe said…

I understand that zoo policies are about profits and visitors and such, but I thought they were supposed to make the habitats as much like home as possible. Animal herds don’t often ostracize for no good reason…

12 Chickenpig { 05.01.12 at 10:47 am }

I can’t believe they can be so cavalier about an animal that is SO rare and endangered. Whether or not she can reproduce, there are so few of them left, in captivity OR the wild. She is amazing and wonderful just because she is here. It is because baby pandas bring out the visitors and bring in the money. It is sad and unfortunate.

13 Corey Feldman { 05.01.12 at 10:49 am }

I am sorry you are going through that. I do feel your pain.

14 Ann Z { 05.01.12 at 11:18 am }

Oh this makes me so sad! I visited the National Zoo when Zoe was 2, and read the story about Mei Xiang and her son, Tai Shan, and immediately related to Mei Xiang – both of us with our IUI babies. I think I even commented about it to a friend who was at the zoo with us, it was one of my first times saying something out loud about our infertility journey.

Oh, this makes me want to give Mei Xiang a big hug, and you one as well. I think the zoo would frown at the former. I wish there were a way for everyone to win here – for the breeding program to work and for Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to not have to go away if this last attempt doesn’t work.

15 k { 05.01.12 at 11:30 am }

Oh hell Mel, I love you. This: “And beyond that, I took on the message that was being inadvertently given by the researchers who want another cub: that Mei Xiang is worthless if she can’t reproduce. She is replaceable in the largest sense of the word.” Seriously, sometimes you feel like the only person I know who gets how I feel.

I think that especially when you have twins from prior treatment, people expect you to be done because you now have the “perfect family”. I would argue secondary infertility after twins is even more invisible (not in a “pain olympics” way just in that people make different assumptions) than for folks with one kiddo. People assume someone with one child wants another. People assume someone with twins is done.

<3 <3 <3 to you and to Mei Xiang

16 luna { 05.01.12 at 11:39 am }

completely brilliant. you MUST submit this for publication so you can reach a broader audience. that is all.

17 Denver Laura { 05.01.12 at 12:30 pm }

I wonder if IUI rates in pandas resembles humans success rate.

Personally I’m 0-2. I’m glad my husband hasn’t shipped me back East.

18 Mo { 05.01.12 at 1:08 pm }

Great post. I was upset when I saw this as well.


19 Katie { 05.01.12 at 4:43 pm }

This is so heartbreaking. 🙁

20 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.01.12 at 8:53 pm }

I agree with Luna. Will this be cross-posted on BlogHer?

Big hugs to Mei Xiang and those who get her all too well.

21 Cherish { 05.02.12 at 9:13 pm }


22 Bea { 05.04.12 at 6:51 am }

Poor Mei Xiang. I mean, who knows how pandas feel about these things, really. And It must be a bit different when your entire species is endangered and whole programs are being set up to try and rectify that. At least she’s not being hauled off to the slaughterhouse as happens in production animal situations where the creature really doesn’t have any other value. (Aren’t you glad you’re vegetarian as you read that?)


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