Politics & Government

State lawmakers to China: Send us some pandas, please

Panda cub Bao Bao hangs from a tree in her habitat at the National Zoo in Washington on her first birthday in 2014. Washington state lawmakers have written the president of China asking if pandas could be sent here.
Panda cub Bao Bao hangs from a tree in her habitat at the National Zoo in Washington on her first birthday in 2014. Washington state lawmakers have written the president of China asking if pandas could be sent here. AP file

A quiet campaign is underway to bring a pair of pandas to Washington state.

About a third of the Legislature has signed a letter asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to consider loaning Washington state two pandas.

A copy of the letter was sent to Xi prior to his visit to Washington state last month. And when the president stopped at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School on Sept. 23, former Washington Gov. John Spellman discussed the possibility with him, said Ron Chow, a Lakewood businessman who has been exploring the idea of bringing pandas to Washington.

So far, 12 state senators and 31 state House members have signed the letter asking the Chinese president to consider loaning the state pandas, said Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who has been working to gather signatures for the effort.

The letter urges Xi to “honor the State of Washington by working in a positive effort to bring native pandas to our state.” The House and Senate each sent its own version of the letter, but the language was nearly identical, Hunt’s office said.

Hunt said he will bring copies of both letters to China this weekend when he attends a trade mission there with Lt. Gov. Brad Owen and a handful of other state officials.

“With China being one of our leading trade partners and everything, if they want to help us with pandas, I just think it would be great to have a couple,” Hunt said Wednesday.

The state’s congressional delegation also has gotten involved. Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell wrote the chinese ambassador to the United States in February asking that China explore the possibility of sending pandas to Washington, their home state.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, sent a similar letter to the executive vice governor of China’s Sichuan province last December.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said one reason Washington state officials are interested in having pandas is because the animals are symbols of friendship in Chinese culture, “and we think it is a great opportunity to promote cross-cultural understanding.”

Of course, regional panda envy may play a role.

“We’re the only corner of the nation without a panda. There’s pandas in Atlanta, San Diego, Memphis and D.C., but not in the Northwest,” Dammeier said.

Dammeier said that even if negotiations proceeded with China to bring pandas to Washington, it would take a year or two to raise money for the effort, as well as time to train zoo staff to care for the animals.

Only at that point could officials determine what facility — if any — in Washington could host the pandas, Dammeier said.

Sen. Pam Roach, another senator who signed the letter to Xi, said she would hope that if pandas come to Washington, they might be housed at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

“From our perspective, our schoolchildren would get to see them, yes, but the other thing is it would be a huge economic draw for our community if they came to our zoo in Pierce County,” said Roach, R-Sumner.

A spokeswoman for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium said the zoo has not been involved in state officials’ work to bring pandas to Washington. Kris Sherman said that the animals “are not in any of our plans.”

Gigi Allianic, a spokeswoman for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, wrote in an email that the zoo is not prepared to accept giant pandas at this time.

Allianic said that exhibiting pandas requires a commitment of both time and money.

“Under the loan agreement with China, each zoo in North America exhibiting pandas is required to pay China $1 million per year for a 10-year minimum commitment, which goes back to panda conservation in China,” Allianic wrote.

Chow, the Lakewood businessman who last year founded the Washington State Panda Foundation, warned that discussions of bringing pandas to Washington state are extremely preliminary at this point.

“We still have a lot of work ahead,” said Chow, who is going to China with state officials during the upcoming trade mission. “We’re not even 10 percent there yet.”

Still, some lawmakers said they are excited about what children in Washington could learn from seeing the endangered animals in person — even if it remains a remote possibility at this point.

“You know we have children in this state who live in cities, who think their food comes from Safeway and who may not have exposure to these kinds of international animals,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. “If we can bring pandas to our state and give our children a chance to view them, I think it’s a great thing.”