San Francisco Mayor Gives Panda Diplomacy a Try

San Francisco Mayor Gives Panda Diplomacy a Try

Facing a tough re-election fight in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has already proposed building a soccer stadium in place of an underused mall, adding a college to the hollowed-out downtown and filling the city’s quiet streets with lively night markets.

But now, Ms. Breed has a new idea to reverse the city’s post-pandemic woes: giant pandas.

She returned Sunday from China wheeling a luggage cart through San Francisco International Airport with stuffed toy pandas brimming from the tops of her bags. Her biggest coup overseas was securing an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to have pandas take up residence at the San Francisco Zoo for the first time.

“Everyone is truly excited about pandas,” Ms. Breed said at the airport. “It represents so much joy.”

The arrival of the black-and-white superstars could be an economic boon for a city hit hard by the pandemic.

They could also give Ms. Breed a personal boost as she tries to shore up support among the frustrated electorate in San Francisco. Voters, particularly those of Asian descent who make up about 37 percent of the population, have told pollsters that they do not approve of the job the mayor is doing, and Ms. Breed and her challengers are fighting hard to win them over.

Securing the pandas would also be a marked contrast from last year, when two adult pandas and their 3-year-old cub were moved out of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and flown back to China aboard a FedEx Boeing 777 called the Panda Express.

Pandas had lived at the National Zoo since 1972, when they were offered as a diplomatic gesture from China after President Richard M. Nixon and Patricia Nixon, the first lady, fawned over pandas on a 1972 trip to Beijing.

Speculation was that China was taking back its pandas because of rising tensions with the United States. A zoo in Atlanta is now the only site in the United States housing pandas, though the San Diego Zoo is set to receive a pair, perhaps as soon as this summer.

The San Francisco pandas will come later — the city hopes by early next year — pending fund-raising for a new panda enclosure. Engineers from Beijing have already visited the zoo to assess the site.

Pandas have only played tourist in San Francisco before, stopping in 1984 and again in 1985 as part of a global tour — back when Dianne Feinstein was mayor and Joe Montana played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. A lot has changed since then, but not the pull of precious pandas.

Ms. Breed described seeing a panda in the flesh for the first time in a wildlife park in Shanghai. The female panda walked, ate, picked things up and seemingly looked right at Ms. Breed.

“It was as if she wanted to have a conversation,” Ms. Breed said.

The city’s first Chinese American mayor, Ed Lee, had pushed to bring pandas to the San Francisco Zoo before his death in 2017.

The idea advanced after San Francisco hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in November.

President Xi Jinping of China met with President Biden at an estate south of the city to discuss major issues including artificial intelligence, Taiwan and fentanyl — but not pandas. Mr. Xi surprised administration officials that night when he said at a dinner with business leaders that he wanted to continue the panda partnership with the United States, singling out California in particular.

In February, the China Wildlife Conservation Association reached a lending agreement with the San Diego Zoo. That same month, Ms. Breed and scores of local Asian leaders sent a letter to Mr. Xi, urging that San Francisco receive pandas.

The announcement came as the San Francisco Zoo faces another round of scrutiny over its operations. Last week, while Ms. Breed was in China, The San Francisco Chronicle published an investigation into the zoo, describing how some employees said they were concerned about animal welfare and worker safety at the 95-year-old institution.

The zoo has faced years of turmoil. In 2000, teenagers, wanting to impress their girlfriends with unusual Christmas presents, stole two koalas before police recovered them. On Christmas in 2007, a Siberian tiger escaped from her enclosure and killed a 17-year-old boy and injured two of his friends who had been taunting her. In 2014, a baby gorilla was crushed by an enclosure door and killed. A ring-tailed lemur was kidnapped from the zoo in 2020.

Vitus Leung, deputy director of the San Francisco Zoo and Gardens, said in a statement that the zoo undergoes inspections from several regulatory bodies, including the United States Department of Agriculture, and “we do not have any noncompliance issues.” He also said that the zoo had been certified for the next few years by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums after an extensive accreditation process.

“Chinese engineers and panda experts have visited the San Francisco Zoo twice and, after a thorough review of many areas and departments of the Zoo, have determined that we are ready to receive Giant Pandas in the near future,” Mr. Leung said.

Carmen Chu, the city administrator, was part of a delegation of roughly 30 officials and business leaders who accompanied Ms. Breed to China. The delegation “not only worked the panda element” but also pushed for more direct flights from China to San Francisco. Before the pandemic, there were 50 such flights each week, but now there are just 20, Ms. Chu said.

She said San Francisco leaders not only wanted to secure a pair of pandas but hoped to see them produce cubs. Unlike so many San Francisco families that move to the suburbs after babies come along, this one would remain in the city — at least until China calls them home.

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