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Zoo-keepers dressed up as giant pandas work to release pandas into the wild.
Photo: VCG via Getty Images

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Saving the Pandas Means Dressing Like a Panda

Why conservationists costume themselves like the animals they’re trying to save.

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Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration, is not the only conservationist to wear a uniform to work. But instead of the khakis and polos that serve to show that humans are all part of the same team, his uniform helps him blend in among a flock of whooping cranes. It’s not a bird costume, per se. Rather than making the wearer look like something else, its purpose is to conceal what they are — a human being who’s trying to teach these cranes how to be wild.

Most of the suit is nothing more than an amorphous white bag that covers the wearer’s arms and everything from head to mid-calf. A volunteer of theirs makes every part specially for the program. To hide their faces, they use white plastic construction helmets covered in a layer of white fabric, except for a small plate made out of reflective mylar that they use to see and a strip of mesh to help them breathe. The costumes are neither stylish nor, in the hot summer months, particularly comfortable. (“Whooping cranes can spend their life in the marsh and mud and they’re still pure white; we can’t spend 10 minutes,” Duff says.) They use the same outfits year-round and have to make them from a material thick enough that when the light shines through, there’s no chance of a crane making out the human silhouette underneath. One hand is covered by a black fabric mitten stitched to the costume so the birds never see a glimpse of skin. In the other, they carry a puppet meant to look like the head of a whooping crane. It’s this, not the blob of white human attached to it, that the birds interact with.

An Operation Migration with the birds.
Photo: Operation Migration

And whooping cranes aren’t the only being put back into the wild with the help of humans in disguise. Reintroduction efforts for California condors, peregrine falcons, and Maui parrotbills have all reared birds using hand puppets meant to resemble the species, if not full costumes. The Monterey Bay Aquarium uses costumes that they refer to as “Darth Vader suits” to raise sea otter pups. The internet is full of photo roundups and videos of panda cubs being carried by humans in panda suits, which range from what appears to be a baggy panda-colored onesie to a leftover panda mascot uniform, complete with an oversize head.

These costumed antics aren’t just thoroughly charming; they’re indicative of our relationship with nature. We might be incapable of (or unwilling to) fix the problems that have led to these animals becoming endangered in the first place, but we’re happy to play mother to wild animals on an individual basis in the hope that these small successes will make up for the numbers they’ve lost. Give us baby animal photos, we say, but keep the environmental doomsaying to yourself.

“The whooping crane is so near the precipice of extinction that it is apt to topple over at any moment,” wrote an ornithologist for National Geographic in 1937. At 5 feet tall and with a wingspan of over 7 feet, this snowy white bird with black legs and a head decorated by a single iridescent red racing stripe is the tallest in North America. In the mid-1800s, a population of 1,500 birds embarked on an annual migration from the coldest territories of Canada to warmer grounds near the Gulf of Mexico. The loud calls of whooping crane pairs echoed for nearly two miles across marshes throughout the country. By the 1940s, those calls were replaced with silence; there were only 21 of them left in the wild.

Destruction of wetlands, a growing reliance on pesticides, and — of course — hunting had completely decimated the population. The plight of the whooping crane got so much press that they were left more or less alone, allowing their numbers to grow. But since a crane takes four to five years to reach sexual maturity and each pair only raises one chick each breeding season, it was a slow process. In the late 1960s, biologists proposed the creation of a captive breeding program that might help raise whooping crane numbers in tandem with their wild cousins.

But teaching the birds bred in captivity how to be wild was another matter. Operation Migration, which started a costume-rearing program for whooping cranes in 2001, was involved with every step of the process of raising the chicks, from hatching to migration. If you’ve ever seen the 1996 film Fly Away Home, you’ll be somewhat familiar with the method. In the 1980s, Bill Lishman, whose story is dramatized in the movie, taught Canadian Geese to migrate by allowing them to imprint on him and then flying the migration route in his ultra-light aircraft, the geese trailing behind.

Duff, a commercial photographer, helped Lishman travel on the first migration with the geese in 1993. When that was successful, they moved on to working with sandhill cranes, then trumpeter swans. But while the birds completed a successful migration, they were also relatively tame. The men tried using a simple poncho to disguise themselves with the sandhill cranes. “They figured it out,” Duff says. The birds now connected humans with food. “They’d land in schoolyards, an exercise park for a high-security prison, even a pick-your-own strawberry farm.” Sandhill cranes can be as large as 3 to 5 feet, depending on the species, and have sharp beaks and claws they’ll use to attack when threatened. The team had to find a way to work with the birds without the birds realizing it. The cranes needed to feel totally independent of humans and, in fact, to fear them if encountered in the wild. “That’s why the costume idea began,” Duff says.

But how convincing are these costumes? Do the birds actually see the person wearing them as a crane? Duff explains with an anecdote: He was in costume out in one of the marshes visiting the birds when an older bird from a previous generation flew down. The adults can be aggressive to the chicks, so Duff quickly stepped in front of it. The bird went through a checklist of dominant behaviors: He stamped his feet and fluffed his feathers at Duff. Duff returned the insults — stomping and using his covered hands like pincers to puff his costume out like a big white balloon. Then, the crane moved to one of their most complex threats — a strangely passive-aggressive diss researchers call a “stick toss.” The crane turns his back to his competition to play with a stick, as if to say, “You are so insignificant I’m not even worried about your presence.” After 45, minutes, the bird flew away.

Operation Migration researches with cranes.
Photo: Operation Migration

Their entire interaction consisted of communication that cranes would never use on another species. “I’m just another whooping crane,” says Duff. “An odd-looking one, but one he’s accepted as his own because I’m acting like him to some degree.” He compares the interaction to speaking in a foreign dialect. “He knows we’re not native speakers, but there’s something familiar about us anyway.”

In the first 15 years of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program, there wasn’t much success releasing human-reared pups into the wild. Those 50 pups, at less than eight weeks old, came to the program after being separated from their mothers — often due to a storm or shark attack. Sandrine Hazan, senior animal care specialist for the program, says that handlers used to spend an inordinate amount of time with the otters. “It wasn’t just that you were bottle-feeding and grooming without wearing disguises, but you were sleeping with them on water beds or in a tank.” Though it was an unforgettable experience for those who worked at the program from when it opened in 1984 to the late 1990s, it wasn’t great for the animals. “They formed a significant attachment to humans,” Hazan says.

During that period, it was estimated that 67 percent of failed releases of these human-reared pups were because the pups didn’t reintegrate with wild populations or avoid interaction with humans. “A lot of them had to be recaptured, and some of them just disappeared and died,” Hazan says. Though these juvenile otters likely knew what a sea otter was, it didn’t matter. “There was such a positive drive toward humans that it altered their sense of species identification.”

A handler feeding an otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium

To combat that, they made two big changes. In 2001, researchers introduced a surrogate program that would place slightly older pups with a female otter that would act as an adoptive parent. They also began looking at various ways that otter pups imprint on their caretakers and quickly realized that they had to find a way to alter the human form. “We weren’t going to dress up as a sea otter; obviously we’re not an otter, and they’d know that,” Hazan says. They developed the costume of gloves — which help mask their scent — a black welder’s helmet, and a nylon poncho. Together, the mask, black poncho, and gloves make it look like imposing hazmat workers are taking care of the pups. The contrast between the fuzz-covered pups and the rubbery costumes is striking.

These changes have been so successful that the program’s main release site, the Elkhorn Slough in Southern California, has grown from an original population of 20 otters to over 150. “It’s a direct impact from our program that the population there is thriving to the point that we’re now looking at more places to release,” Hazan says.

“Most environmental stories are pretty bleak these days,” says Marc Brody, founder of Panda Mountain, an organization working to conserve giant pandas and their habitat. He believes pandas can provide a rare chance to give people hope that they can help endangered species survive. Since the first captive-bred giant panda in China was born in 1963, breeding programs have become experts at getting the notoriously shy animals to reproduce. In 2017, a record 42 pandas were born in captivity in China. Yet it was only in 2006 that they attempted to release a captive-bred panda into the wild. Xiang Xiang was found dead after 10 months. During the years of careful planning before their next release, researchers at the program came up with the idea of using panda suits while working with animals that they intended to release into the wild. (Since pandas rely more on smell than sight, workers often rub panda feces or urine on the suits to help them blend in.) As of late 2016, seven pandas have been reintroduced into the wild.

“There’s no question that the captive panda program has been a tremendous success,” says Brody. The population of captive giant pandas now stands at 520; there are just over 2,000 in the wild. “But there has not been a commensurate effort to conserve and restore habitat.” It’s easier, and more heartwarming, for our environmental conservation to take the form of social-media-friendly photos of humans in costumes. In The Sixth Extinction, about an impending human-made mass extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert writes of our willingness to go above and beyond for the sake of the animals: “Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we’re willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows.”

We can’t bear the thought of an orphaned otter pup, so we save them. Yet it’s unlikely that anyone would dress up in a costume to save the Lake Titicaca water frog (more commonly known as the “scrotum frog” thanks to its wrinkly, baggy skin) even if we were sure it would save them. As M. Sanjayan, now CEO of Conservation International, told National Geographic in 2013, “What we decide to save really is very arbitrary—it’s much more often done for emotional or psychological or national reasons than would ever be made with a model.” And we don’t have a visceral connection to disappearing clean water or bamboo forests or that marshland that was filled in to make room for another big-box store. The only costume we can wear to fix those problems is our everyday clothing.

Brody says that the best part about the reintroduction program is that it’s led officials to think critically about what pandas need to survive in the wild. As of 2017 there are plans to create a national giant panda reserve the size of “three Yellowstones” that would link up existing habitats to make mating easier and more genetically diverse.

A zoo-keeper dressed up as a giant panda releases Cao Gen the panda cub into the wild.
Photo: VCG via Getty Images

This is all good news for giant pandas. But as inspiring as all these programs are — our willingness to go to great lengths to recover a species that we humans accidentally destroyed — it’s hard not to wonder if there’s something strange about humans dressing up as animals to help these endangered species reclaim a wildness we took from them in the first place.

Despite what seems like the initial successes of the Operation Migration Program, in 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service used its authority over any animal protected under the endangered species act and ended the aircraft-guided reintroduction method (though they still use costumes to raise chicks that migrate with adult cranes of previous generations). As Operation Migration now notes on its website, the government agency “determined that the aircraft-guided method was too ‘artificial’ and that cranes raised by costumed handlers, missed early learning opportunities.”

Those California condors raised by puppets were found to have behavior problems — they were less interested in their own species while gravitating toward humans like a magnet. Conservation biologist Mike Wallace told Nature, “Getting animals raised in captivity to be wild again is a real challenge. Once we have wild parents raising wild born young it will get a lot easier, but until then we need to intervene.”

It’s a magical-seeming thing that humans can intervene at all in this process, that something so unnatural as wearing a head-to-toe costume can put a wild animal back into its natural habitat. That it’s literally the stuff family-friendly movies are made from should surprise no one. Videos of humans flying alongside a formation of cranes are extraordinary and moving. But what if the biggest success of programs like these is eliciting emotions like that? Looking at the data, it feels like these programs aren’t just fighting a losing battle, but might only exist as a desperate effort to assuage our guilt over the problems that our ancestors caused: a talent for hapless destruction that seems to have been passed down in our very DNA.

Sea otters are what are known as a sentinel species — their numbers reflect the overall health of the ecosystems they live in. Their diet relies heavily on sea urchins and other marine life that feed on giant kelp. Where otters have disappeared, so have kelp forests and the other species that need that habitat to survive. Even in the areas where they weren’t hunted to extinction, their success is a tenuous thing. Southern Alaska used to contain half of the world’s population of sea otters, but human threats like the Exxon-Valdez oil spill (which killed nearly 4,000 otters) and increased predation by the killer whale has caused their numbers to decline by over half since the mid-1980s.

In contrast to the decimation of one environmental mishap, our efforts to breed and reintroduce species is a Sisyphean task. It’s hard to let go of the fantasy of a future in which whooping cranes again soar through the skies, pandas freely roam the bamboo forests, and otters line the Pacific Coast, gleefully breaking open clams on a rock and holding hands while floating off to sleep. To not even try and achieve this dream is too cruel. To give up on saving these other species means we’re giving up hope for our own — that we can and will do better, even if we aren’t doing it right this second. We’re not fooling these animals while waddling around in animal costumes; the suits are fooling us into believing we can fix the damage we’ve done.

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