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Tohui Panda and the¨Mexican Madonna¨

ZOO BORN: Tohui panda (July 21, 1981 — November 16, 1993) was the star of Mexico City´s Zoológico de Chapultepec in the early 80s, inspiring several kids songs and a tv program.

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There hadn´t been a fatal animal attack story in the news for a while, which is why Tilikum´s killing of his Seaworld trainer last week dominated the headlines.

For me it brought to mind that terrible exploitation movie Orca (1977). And renewed international interest in the debate about captive animals who, like humans, probably don´t take very well to incarceration.

But the issue is more about the exploitation of captive animals for our benefit. A beer company used to make money off of Shamu, and when the theme park business stopped making much money, it was sold.

I´m sure this caused some headaches in the boardroom of the Blackstone Group, too, which had just purchased Seaworld from that beer company just a few months ago in a $2.7 billion deal. Business, before the accident wasn´t so hot and according to the Wall Street journal, the acquisition was

…the largest private-equity deal of 2009 and one of the largest since the financial crisis began more than two years ago.

On a more personal note, this incident recalls my 6th grade trip to the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, Michael Jackson,  the tiger mauling in San Francisco, Bo Derek and Tohui, the Panda of Chapultepec Zoo.

Tohui, which in tarahumara  Nahuatl language means ¨child,¨ became something of a pop culture phenom back in the 1980s here in Mexico City. On a global level, it was the first time, outside of China, that a giant panda was born and lived in captivity. Mexico has one of the most successful panda breeding programs in the world.

The panda was a sensation, becoming the city´s mascot and main zoo attraction, and also a marketing wonder, with an anime movie and a hit pop song.

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The song, ¨El Pequeño Panda De Chapultepec,¨ (1982) was a huge hit for Yuri, a singer from Veracruz who first came on the scene with a solid Spanish version of Debby Boone´s ¨You Light Up my life,¨ you can listen here. Yuri is considered one of Mexico´s greatest pop stars. Appearances in Playboy (rather tame, but you can see here, here and here)  led to her being dubbed the ¨Mexican Madonna,¨ something that inspired U.S. tabloid media.

Despite some career mishaps, like her  duet with Don Johnson (her first English song, so bad it makes you appreciate what Maria Jose and Trey Songz did), the Mexican diva always bounced back.

Yuri´s career continues to this day. She recorded a song with Panamanian reggae star Nigga (we´re going to keep it authentic and not even bother calling him ¨Flex¨) and continues to perform around Latin America.

As for Tohui, she only lived to be about 12. Far shy of the life expectancy of pandas in captivity. Mexico´s panda program continues, and to date there have been no fatal attacks on trainers. And while we have Tohui´s legacy established in popular song, it´s hard not to think that maybe her quality of life, like other animals, would have been better if she was born and raised in the wild.

No matter the mishaps, we need to be entertained. So, the show must go on.

Photo, top, from cover of Descubra la Ciudad de Mexico (1981). Anime picture from kiddiematinee.com.

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One Response

  1. Very interesting! Just one small detail: Tohuí is a tarahumara or rarámuri word, not nahuatl!

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