Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo had never been more crowded. In addition to the excited visitors, hundreds of media flooded through the gates as soon as they opened. Though individuals pushed and elbowed to be first, the throng moved almost as one entity toward their mutual destinationthe ursine habitatthe homes of the bears.
When they had gone as far as the barriers would allow, they began jumping and bobbing for a look and a picture of the Zoo's latest acquisition.
In nearby enclosures the current resident bears gathered to discuss the new arrival. "Well, I don't know what the big to-do is about; a bear is a bear." Stated Jake, the skeptical Black Bear. "He'd better not try getting any of my food," threatened Zeb, the Grizzly.
Nanoo, the Polar Bear, popped her head up from her icy pond long enough to caution the others: "Cool it, guys. Let's just watch and see what this unknown bear is like."
That evening, when the zoo closed and the irritating flash bulbs stopped popping, the "Legion Bears" (or so they called themselves) began their clandestine study of the newest addition. Jake, the smaller bear, stood on the shoulders of Zeb and peered into the neighboring dwelling.
"Looks like it's asleep," he whispered. "And, oh wait, I think there's at least two of them, a white one and a black one." "What else can you see?" asked Sarah, the inquisitive Brown Bear. "I see some tall, funny looking grass. Kinda reminds me of the zoo keeper's lawn furniture. And there's a sign by the rail that says, 'Da Xiong Mao, Giant Panda,' whatever that is."
Since there was nothing more in view at night, the bears returned to their individual homes to consider what they had learned. Early the next morning they were again at their posts, staking out the interloper. Jake first reported the news that there were not two bears, one white and one black, but rather one bear with both colors on its fur. Its ears, legs, arms, shoulders, and eyes were black while its body and face were white.
"Well get this," he said, "the new bear can't even decide what color it is! And, it has a long, funny thumb that it's using to eat the grass!" Unable or unwilling to believe his friend, the Grizzly insisted on reversing their positions, almost trampling his smaller buddy. "Hmm... It's true!" he roared. "Come over here, Nanoo, you won't believe this."
The Polar Bear decided that she would make a welcoming overture to the newcomer. She brought a large, frozen fish which she tossed over the wall. "Hi," said she, "Welcome to Lincoln Park. That's a delicious fish I've sent over. Hope you enjoy it. By the way, what are you?"
With that the Panda spoke her first words to the ursine assembly. First she graciously bowed her head as a gesture of respect to the others.
"Hello! My name is Chu Li and I am Panda from China. Thank you for fish, but I do not eat fish so must send back over wall."
Nanoo looked at the others and whispered, "Doesn't eat fish? Who does she think she is, some kind of snob?" To the Panda she said, "Well, what do you eat?" "My diet consists of bamboo," the Panda replied. "Would you like to share bamboo?" "Yuk," sputtered the tactless Polar. "Eat grass? No thanks!"
In the weeks that followed the Legion Bears kept a curious eye on Chu Li. They noticed that she could not stand up on her hind legs and that made them feel superior. They also noticed that every morning she would sit upon a gentle hill and do odd exercises. For instance, she would wrap one leg around the other reach her arms up and behind her head and just sit there looking into space.
When they asked, she bowed and told them, "This is Tai Chi, ancient Chinese exercise to stretch body and mind." "Well, I can see how it stretches your body, but how does sitting there expand your mind?" asked the Brown Bear. "In Tai Chi, we focus on important thoughts. Today, I concentrate on saying by ancient leader, Confucius. Long ago, he tell us, "The superior being cannot be known in little matters, but he may be entrusted with great concerns. The small being may not be entrusted with great concerns, but he may be known in little matters."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, all right. Well we gotta go," replied Zeb.
As always, the snide snoops waited until they were out of earshot before laughing and declaring (aptly) that they preferred lifting dumbbells to Tai Chi.
Indeed, the Legion Bears might have continued to scorn the Panda forever had not circumstance intervened. On a warm, summer evening a fierce storm blew in off Lake Michigan. A stabbing bolt of lightening struck a tree and ignited the dry timber. The fire spread quickly, threatening all the animals.
The Bears were alarmed because they knew from years of trying they could not scale the walls to safety. Just as they started to panic, they heard the voice of Chu Li.
"Come here friend bears, and I will tell you how to save yourselves."
At first they ignored her; but then, seeing no other escape route they decided to listen to what she had to say. They turned to approach the wall that separated them and were shocked to see the Panda sitting on top of the wall.
"Hey, how'd you do that?" asked Zeb.
"In China, Panda eat bamboo, but humans use to make scaffold. You must climb ladder and come over to bamboo field. I will show you how to make structure and leave zoo swiftly."
"Well, if you have such knowledge, Chu Li, why haven't you told us before?" challenged Jake.
Bowing, she replied softly yet sincerely, "You have all spoken of only little thingswhat one eats, how one lookstopics not worth energy. This is first time matter of true importance to others has arisen. Please to work now."
Acting under the guidance of their newly emerged leader, the humbled bears quickly built the necessary framework for survival. When the emergency vehicles arrived, the rescue workers were shocked to find all the animals watching the blaze. The escape baffled the human investigators who never found the bamboo scaffolding which had ultimately been incinerated by the flames. Nor did they note the subtle bowing of the head which each animal performed when passing the dwelling of Chu Li, the Giant Panda.
The wise leader can be entrusted with great concerns because her vision enables her to focus beyond small matters.
Panda-Monium was written and narrated by Julie Reder Fairley. This parable is dedicated to Shirley McCune.