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Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005

YULE NEVER STAND ALONE

Festive fun with forgotten Futa


Staff writer

It's 9:58 on a chilly Wednesday morning, and it looks like I am the first of the day's visitors to Chiba Zoological Park.

News photo
Futa, a Red Panda, stands at attention at the Chiba Zoological Park. Futa's ability to hoist himself upright sparked a media frenzy in May.

Why, you may well wonder, am I hanging around out here on a weekday morning in midwinter, when I could be sitting in a nice warm office in central Tokyo chewing the fat with colleagues and pondering my route to a Pulitzer prize.

Well, it's almost Christmas, and I am in Chiba to extend the hand of friendship to a star who shot to the heights of national acclaim in summer -- only to be cast adrift now the long nights are here in this supposed season of goodwill.

His novelty may have worn off, but for Futa, surely, this plunge back into the shadows of anonymity must be particularly hurtful as all around his so-called former friends begin to share the Yuletide spirit of joy.

News photo
Futa takes a break from his busy itinerary of eating bamboo leaves, greeting visitors and winning over companion Chi-Chi.

A strain of "Jingle Bells" wafts through the air from the nearby amusement park, and its jollity cuts me to the quick. Suddenly I realize what happiness Futa briefly brought -- and how long it has taken me to say a personal "thank you."

Futa . . .

Fuuuta . . .

If for some outlandish reason you do not know the name Futa then you clearly haven't been reading the papers.

Why, you're probably the type who wouldn't know a two-year-old Red Panda, which is what Futa is, from, say, some scruffy old raccoon or even a bear -- animals to which some self-proclaimed "scientists" have claimed he's related to.

I believe (and true experts out there would agree) that Red Pandas are in a zoological class of their own -- one that's uniquely attuned to their home habitat far off in the Himalayas and western China.

A word on Futa's background, in case you've been wrapped up in "more important" matters.

Futa soared to fame in mid-May, when a newspaper published an article on his ability to stand imperiously on his two hind feet. Story-hungry TV stations picked it up from there, and before you knew it camera crews were crawling all over Chiba Zoological Park, beaming images of Futa doing what comes naturally from satellite trucks crammed bumper to bumper.

At that perplexing point in his life Futa had overcome a difficult childhood. Born on July 5, 2003, at Shizuoka's Nihondaira Zoo, he never met his father, Fufu, who died before he was born. Then one day when his mother, Nara, was about to lift him up by the scruff of his neck (the way cats do), she somehow missed and bit off the tip of his tail.

Yet when the cameras arrived in May, Futa paid no heed to his tragic deformity. Not ashamed of his past, he gazed calmly -- thoughtfully -- into the lenses and out into the world beyond the zoo's walls, the very model of self-confidence.

Which is why I take issue with those nasty alternative classifications for Red Pandas: "Common Panda" and "Lesser Panda."

Lesser than what? Than some arrogant Ailuropoda melanoleuca -- one of those celebrity "Giant Pandas" with their ostentatiously cute black-and-white color scheme? Pah!

Futa, as an Ailurus fulgens, may be only the size of a fat cat, but what about that noble, bushy tail (even without the tip)? What about that spectacular ability to woo a mate -- in this case a flighty girlfriend they got him called Chi-chi -- by rubbing his gonads against tree stumps? How many beaus would go to such lengths to impress a belle!

Yuletide spirit, Yuletide spirit. I must maintain the Yuletide spirit . . . .

Right, so let's see, some seals are belching at me over here, I hear monkey chatter over there. Two Secretary Birds are giving me the evil eye, and according to my map, I am only steps . . . away . . . from . . .

Fuuuta!

Ha ha! There you are, you furry little rascal. At last, my old friend, we meet in person. Or whatever. A hearty Merry Christmas to you!

Hey, buddy, stop chewing those bamboo leaves for just a sec so we can make up for lost time.

And I think we can chat just a bit more candidly if little What's-Her-Face there excuses herself. I'll admit that she's gorgeous. But there are some things we males can best discuss when left alone. Ha ha! She'll understand.

Futa, how I have felt for you all these months, as the news coverage eased up and the number of visitors -- largely to see you -- fell from that peak of almost 15,000 on the weekend nationals picked up your story.

How the networks have been fickle, turning their attention so quickly away from you to that overblown election in September. And now they're hung up on some forged architectural designs or something. Not at all worried how Futa is spending Christmas. And they call that news judgment?

I hear, though, that you've remained true to your fan base, even as it dwindled. You endured June's rainy-season downpours, and then even stayed out to greet all-comers in that blasted August sun you hate so much . . . even as What's-Her-Face retreated to her air-conditioned accommodations.

How your Royal Standing Salute made so many so happy.

Um, are you hearing what I say,Futa? Dude, just forget about that little hussy, would ya? It's time for some Man Talk! Politics, baseball, females. Whatever. Just lend me one of those furry ears.

Hey, did you know somebody wrote a song for you called "Lesser Panda II"? Don't worry about the title. It's ignorant. But the melody (borrowed from "Matsuken Samba II") isn't bad. Sing along!

Ole, ole! Lesser Pan-da!

Ole, ole! Lesser Pan-daaaa!

Oh, stand for me, Lesser!

Walk with me, Lesser!

Forget about sleeping,

Just gaze at me

Panda! Viva Panda!

Les-ser Panda, Ole!

Let me catch my breath. Catchy, huh? Found it on the Web.

Futa, where are you? Ah, up there with What's-Her-Face again. Well, they do say your "mating season" is coming up in January. It's to be hoped you're accorded some privacy then!

I see a keeper has arrived. I guess your lunch is coming up. Before I split, could you just . . . yeah, you know. Give me the old Royal Standing Salute? Just once?

No! Not over there. Here! That keeper gets to see The Salute every day!

I see. Well, I'll be off then. Got some big stories to write back at the office. You take care. And, hey, enjoy the holidays -- besides with What's-Her-Face.



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