Suddenly, New York’s Rich Are Obsessed With Importing Pandas

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“Children love pandas!” declared Representative Carolyn Maloney with the giddy conviction of a politician getting behind something incontrovertible.

Up on the 18th floor of the soon-to-be-gutted, now-owned-by-the-Chinese monument to American Greatness the Waldorf Astoria, a crowd of 450 was deep in thrall to a strange panda fantasia — one that has drifted through the city’s power elite like a wishful-thinking, public-spirited psychedelic reverie over the past few months (intensified, in a way, by the anti-Establishment election).

The event was to raise money — $50 million is the estimated goal — to bring a couple of pandas to live in Central Park. The dream had proved unbelievably flexible: Democrats for pandas, Republicans for pandas, and, above all, New York (and Chinese) money for pandas; pandas as cuddly “Can’t we all just get along?” political metaphors and icons of world trade; pandas for peace and mutual respect, and the branding opportunities that could bind rival empires together, but in any event pandas who could never be pressed into military service over the islands in the South China Sea. Pandas as crowd-pleasing trophies of city pride (the D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis zoos have them, but the Bronx Zoo last had them, and only briefly, in the late 1980s); pandas as paragons of a kind of toddlerlike, clumsy innocence — we must protect them! — and of conservationism (there’s a reason the World Wildlife Fund has a panda as its logo; without human support, it’d be hard for them to even survive the Anthropocene). This is all besides their being such adorable plushie fluff (for those fluffy people who were hoping to make their world a little fluffier again). Who knows why we are supposed to care about these sleepy-eyed creatures, really — though we instinctively tend to — much less how practical this grand panda dream is. The important thing seemed to be that, emerging bleary-eyed and anxious from the election season, New York’s powerful people had to care about something uncontroversial, had to gather together at charity galas and sit in those faux-bamboo chairs at the benefit for some reason. And suddenly the list of inoffensive causes had shrunk so radically that it seemed maybe a couple of fat black-and-white bears — who eat almost exclusively what is the world’s least nutritious vegetation and who take a rather lackadaisical approach to procreation — were the only thing these people could agree on anymore. It’s panda populism: Check out the National Zoo’s panda cam!

And so, on the evening of February 8: the Black & White Panda Ball. Maloney was dressed, intentionally, rather like a panda, in a sleeveless black-with-white-polka-dots L.K. Bennett dress she’d bought for the occasion. Onstage at the Starlight Roof, she was extolling what pandas could do to heal this city, maybe even this country, in the face of American Carnage. “They are also a symbol of good luck, and after the tumultuous time we had over the past two decades, I think it’s time to have some of these pandas.”

The room was crowded, with guests paying $1,000 for a ticket. PNC Bank, Bank of America, and Leonard Lauder were among the $25,000-a-table “Bamboo”-level sponsors; China Construction America, Cushman & Wakefield, JPMorgan Chase, and China Merchants Bank had their logos on the program. Guests included Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who for many years ran AIG, which has been in China since 1919; Joe Piscopo, the now-leathery former Saturday Night Live star turned Trump surrogate, who, shortly after this event, told the Times he wants to run for governor of New Jersey; former mayor David Dinkins; retired representative Charlie Rangel; Stephen Baldwin, the Republican Baldwin; the 85-year-old fashion model Carmen Dell’Orefice; Larry and Wendy Rockefeller; China’s consul general to New York, Ambassador Zhang Qiyue; and the admittedly befuddled musician and performance artist Casey Spooner, who’d come along as someone’s guest to fill out a table, but, when I ran into him during the cocktail hour — in which crab cakes and Peking-duck egg rolls were passed, and a professionally friendly person dressed in an actual panda outfit mingled with the crowd, posing for selfies — he wasn’t sure what the whole evening was about, exactly, and made it clear that he is personally rather uncomfortable with the entire idea of animals being kept in captivity.

“I just want to say hello. We’re lucky to have this happen,” said John Catsimatidis, Maloney’s chief ally in the panda crusade. The garrulous Gristedes-supermarket-and-oil-refining mogul, municipal-gadfly radio host, promiscuous political contributor, and perennial mayoral aspirant was holding forth from the stage as guests ate “candy-cane beet and mango salads” and perused the program, which read, on the cover, THE PANDAS ARE COMING TO NYC (adding parenthetically, in smaller type, perhaps helpfully for those unfamiliar with where pandas live when not in zoos, that “they are coming all the way from China”). “What we want — we want the pandas in Central Park,” he added. “We love the pandas. We’re going to have an additional 5 million tourists to New York City.” (Hmm — 5 million?) “Everybody will do great … and most important, the cultural exchange between New York and China, which will bring everybody closer together, and that’s what we want, right?”

The evening’s emcee was Fox 5 NY’s implacably affable Ernie Anastos, who had just a short time before he confronted the Asian-American children of the Joyous String Ensemble — who’d navigated a recognizable version of “Every Breath You Take” and who’d, Anastos told us, been on both Fox & Friends and, my tablemate and I agreed we heard him say, “Helen DeGeneres” — with this demand: that they tell him about their “love of the pandas.”

“We’re so excited for two cute, cute pandas to come to New York City,” one said. “Wouldn’t it be cute to name one of the pandas Joy?”

Inside Carolyn Maloney’s Black & White Panda Ball, held at the Waldorf Astoria February 8. Photo: Dina Litovsky

Maloney has been in panda pursuit for a number of years now; for her powerful friends, it’s a testament to her quirky determination. But pandas clearly mean something to her — something like a symbol of a kind of state of cozy grace in this dirty, unlucky world. You can see it in her face in an August 2014 photo of her with a panda, looking a bit smitten, on a visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the Sichuan province of China; it was projected on a screen at the event. “That’s a real panda, not a stuffed animal, and we’re holding hands,” Maloney said wistfully.

When I asked Maloney later what caused her to be so interested in the bears, she said one of her daughters, Virginia, was obsessed with them when she was a child, going so far as to decorate her room with a map of China, showing where they could be found. Today, Virginia is collecting graduate degrees from MIT and Harvard and going to work for Facebook, so her phase of wanting to be a “panda scientist” turned out to be just a phase. But Maloney says she’s always brought up pandas whenever she meets officials in China, and it would always “break the ice to talk about pandas — everybody was happy.”

It wasn’t quite the same back home. After her trip to China in 2014, she went on Catsimatidis’s radio show to complain about how the Chinese authorities she spoke to about getting pandas for the city had wanted to confirm that the local authorities were onboard. “The mayor wasn’t interested,” she said, before adding that Mayor de Blasio “doesn’t like horses [in Central Park], and I guess he doesn’t like pandas [either].” She said Governor Andrew Cuomo backed her efforts and had dispatched State Parks commissioner Rose Harvey to help.

Who wouldn’t want a panda? De Blasio was worried they were too expensive — the bamboo alone! — and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the world-class zoos in the city, wasn’t interested in reshuffling resources to the people-pleasing pandas just to please a congressperson. At one point, the Times reported, a Conservation Society official complained to City Hall that Maloney’s advocacy had reached “a new level of absurdity,” and suggested, “I think a statement saying that we appreciate her passion but we are not interested in pandas would be very helpful … Clearly she doesn’t hear it when we say it to her respectfully.”

The conservationists understood, in ways a crushed-out panda lover might not, that what makes them lovable is also what makes them difficult: They are incompetent creatures who somehow lucked into an evolutionary loophole by which they seduced the world’s most powerful creatures into swooning over them because they are so cute (cuteness being, evolutionarily speaking, how humans process vulnerability and lack of independence). In the wild, pandas are solitary creatures, designed, like other bears, with a digestive tract to eat meat but who subsist instead on a great deal of bamboo every day. It’s a foraging-intensive diet, and pandas’ low metabolic rate accounts for their stoner allure — all they do all day is sort of roll around and munch. Panda males in captivity aren’t particularly amorous, either: Researchers have taken to showing them panda porn to try to get them in the mood. Or just orient them. On top of that, female pandas can become pregnant on only a few days a year, occasionally accidentally crush their offspring, and seem able to raise only one of them at a time if they happen to bear twins (or, in one super-adorable case, triplets).

In addition to all that, all pandas are the property of China and must be leased, with heavy regulations, at about a million dollars a year for a set, if the government bureaucracy lets you have them at all. According to the terms of a cooperative breeding agreement, any offspring — which everyone agrees are of course the cutest — must be returned before their fourth birthday, as happened just last month with Bao Bao, the National Zoo’s beloved cub (CNN covered her journey home to China closely). Until about a hundred years ago, pandas were virtually unknown in the West, outside of a few improbable taxidermied specimens in science museums. But since the arrival of Su Lin, the first panda to survive the journey to America, in 1936, pandas have been cuddly, spectacular draws for zoos: Su Lin spent some time in New York before being sold to suburban Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors, including Helen Keller and Al Capone. Within a decade, six more pandas had arrived in the U.S., including two at the Bronx Zoo. They became the main attraction of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Bronx Zoo got another gift of two in 1941, Pandah and Pandee, from Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek, as a gesture of friendship by the non-communist Chinese to this country.

Once the communists won, panda emigration was banned, and America became panda-depopulated. Then came Richard Nixon and his 1972 trip to China, which brought Ling-Ling (1969–92) and Hsing-Hsing (1970–99). In return, the U.S. government sent China a pair of musk oxen. Good deal!

Maloney’s is a different kind of diplomacy — the power of private money. She eventually got the mayor to come around by promising no public funds would be used (the governor had a similar stipulation). The core backers are Catsimatidis; Yue-Sai Kan, the Chinese-American television personality; and Hank Greenberg — the guy who sued the government for $40 billion for overstepping its legal authority in how it bailed out his company, AIG, in 2008. Along with Maloney, the three run The Pandas Are Coming to NYC, a pro-panda 501c3.

When I met with Greenberg a couple of weeks after the Panda Ball, at his Park Avenue office decorated with Asian art both ancient and modern, he wanted to make sure I understood why they’re all allied in this project. “All for different reasons,” he said, with the sageness of a very rich 91-year-old man. “If you’re a politician, it helps your constituency. If you’re an aspiring politician, you’re hoping it will help you.” He paused. “I’m not either of those.” So what is he in it for? “It’s a beautiful animal,” he said. I noticed inch-high role-playing figurines on his desk that appeared to show one man begging for his life while another, in a metal helmet, held a sword over him. I asked him if that was inspiring for doing business, and he laughed a little.

Yong Yong, one of a pair of the last pandas to live in New York, at the Bronx Zoo in 1987. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

At the panda ball, Catsimatidis introduced Ed Cox, the chairman of the New York State Republican Party (whose son was married to Catsimatidis’s daughter for a while). “All right, a little bit of history here,” Cox said, mounting the stage in front of American and Chinese flags. “I was a senior in college in 1968. I was dating this beautiful girl, Tricia Nixon. We’d been together for four years since high school.” Her father was running in the New York primary against Nelson Rockefeller — whose nephew Larry was at the Panda Ball. Cox asked Nixon what this rumored secret plan for peace was that Rockefeller kept going on about. “And you know what he said? ‘I am going to go to Beijing and Moscow, and we’re going to bring a “Generation of Peace” in the world.’ That’s what he said. And then he became president. The world was facing a potential nuclear war between the Warsaw Pact and nato. And the Chinese were fighting all these border wars. And we were losing 300 draftees a week in a proxy war in Vietnam. All this was going on. And what’s the symbol of that? The panda. That is the hope for peace in the world. China is emerging on the world stage, the second biggest economic power in the world, and there is the dispute over the islands in the South China Sea … More than ever, we need to have this symbol. As a symbol of peace in the world. Yes, there are pandas in Washington, D.C., but it doesn’t count unless there are pandas here in NYC, the capital of the world! Am I right?

Most at the ball would tend to agree. Where it gets complicated is that zoos in New York don’t want pandas imposed on them. So what to do? How about building your own single-species exhibition pavilion for the pandas, paid for with private funds, in the northern section of Central Park (Maloney says they will have a design competition, but I. M. Pei is interested). Maybe even get the Trumps involved: Catsimatidis told the New York Post that he spoke to a representative of the Trump Organization about Donald Jr. and Eric Trump maybe cottoning to pandas the way their dad had to Wollman Rink in the 1980s. “What I’d say to Eric is, ‘You’d be doing for the panda project what your father did with the Wollman Rink. Can you build a panda facility that follows in the footsteps of your father?’ ” Catsimatidis told the paper. He later said to me, “You bring the pandas up to people on the street, and 80 percent of them say, ‘Yeah, bring the pandas!’ ” Which seems accurate. “It’s a plus-plus for the hotel-and-restaurant industry. I think it will increase the relationship with the Chinese and New Yorkers … I jokingly was saying to the Chinese people, ‘I’m going to talk to Trump; you guys build good walls.’ They have a good sense of humor.”

And how did Yue-Sai, whom Catsimatidis calls “the Barbara Walters of China,” get involved? Ten years ago, she had the same idea and even went to the Bronx Zoo and “asked the guy who was the head of the zoo how to do it,” she told me on the phone from Shanghai, where her allergies were bothering her (“Today it’s so smoggy and scary. You can’t see across the street”). The zookeeper said he remembered the last time they had pandas, she told me, in 1987, for six months under a deal Ed Koch had brokered. (In the 1980s, the Chinese were offering pandas on short-term rental, but after the World Wildlife Fund sued the U.S. government on grounds that this was bad conservation policy, new regulations were put in place offering them for only ten years at a time. Koch told the Times that having pandas in town got him reelected.)

“It’s so expensive,” Yue-Sai realized, so she was happy to join Maloney’s crusade. The Panda Ball raised $500,000, which isn’t much for a project like this, even though Maloney told me she thought it could be done for less than the $50 million estimate, and others involved told me they thought they could even cut a deal on the pandas from China for less than the usual $1 million a year.

Yue-Sai also had some other ideas. Why not “get a construction company to donate the materials? That would be phenomenal. And someone to sponsor all the bamboos? That would be so cool, so, so cool,” Yue-Sai said. “You need a very big anchor sponsor,” she thought. She had a thought about that, too: Panda Express, the fast-food chain. “I think that would be ideal,” she said. “How perfect is that?”

*This article appears in the March 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Suddenly, New York’s Rich Are Obsessed With Importing Pandas