Why Are We So Obsessed With the Panda Cam?

Marina Koren

When the government reopened Thursday morning, hundreds rushed hungrily to their computers to check something the shutdown had kept them from for more than two weeks. They were not necessarily the furloughed federal employees, previously barred from logging into their work email accounts, playing catch-up with bloated inboxes. They were the denizens of the Internet, who had gone far too long without their panda fix.

The National Zoo, along with the rest of the Smithsonian Institution, closed its doors Oct. 1 when the government shut down. It took its famous Giant Panda Cam, an online live stream of the zoo's most popular residents, with it. Shutting down the U.S. government for the first time in 17 years was one thing, the Internet collectively roared, but cutting America off from a continuous feed of cute animals was quite another.

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So, it came as no surprise that the zoo's announcement of the stream's return Thursday morning, along with updates on the growth of the yet-unnamed 8-week-old cub, daughter of giant panda Mei Xiang, was met with overwhelming, bordering on irrational, excitement. "Time for happy tears!" commented one user on the zoo's Facebook page. "Good to have things back to NORMAL" wrote another. "The world is a much better place with panda cam back in operation!" said a third.

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A CNN ticker read "Gov't reopens, panda cam returns."

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Within 10 minutes of the stream's return Thursday, the cam reached its full capacity for viewers, 850 connections, and stayed there all day, National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. In August, days after the cub's celebrated birth, demand stretched the website's bandwidth enough for the zoo to instate a viewing limit of 15 minutes per user (people watching using the zoo's smartphone app can stream to their hearts' desire). "I don't believe the Smithsonian Institution's bandwidth will allow for more connections," Baker-Masson said Friday afternoon.

This won't stop the panda cam's growing cult following. America has become obsessed, and it's easy to see why.

For humans, aggressive responses to cuteness are the norm. A recent study found that participants who watched a slideshow of photos deemed adorable popped more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap than did participants who looked at funny or neutral photos. Their reaction explains why we want to "squish" something or "just eat it up" when it's too cute for us mere mortals to handle. Out of context, these are rather violent responses, but they are born of our extreme responses to cute objects, like baby pandas.

The baby element is key here. Baby animals and baby humans share similar facial features, like chubby cheeks, oversize foreheads, and big, vulnerable eyes, which trigger an ancient protective mechanism in humans that makes us want to care for our offspring. When baby animals, especially domesticated creatures like cats and dogs, grow older, they retain some of their juvenile-like features, a phenomenon known as pedomorphism, enough to stay just as cute to us.

"I know this is a wild animal. I realize we aren't supposed to think of them this way," a Facebook user wrote on the zoo's page. "But….I just want to CUDDLE THIS BABY!!"

Yes, humans love cute things way too much. But staying glued to the panda cam at the office isn't necessarily a bad thing. Research suggests that looking at cute images of baby animals may improve our work performance. A 2009 study found that viewing cute images, such as of puppies and kittens, improved participants' performance in a game of Operation. Exposure to cute animals, the authors concluded, boosted participants' focus, attention to detail, and careful behavior.

The zoo stoked the nation's panda fever further when it posted a video of the cub, looking much fluffier than she did before the shutdown began, on its Facebook page on Thursday. Reactions indicate Americans are glad their favorite animal cam (there are others, guys) is back. "I was afraid we were going to miss those little eyes open but I'm just so happy to have her and Mom back," wrote one user. "I hope she can hear all of us cheering we've got her back. I SEE BABY NOW!!!!!"

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