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Setting the panda watch

The panda is going to be the subject of a PBS television documentary early next month, and some people will say, ''That's just like a panda. Big media star!'' Let the elitists sneer. We can hardly wait. Some mass popularity is deserved, among animals as well as people.

The last time we saw a panda was in London's Regents Park Zoo about six years ago, and he was pulling the crowd away from the parrots, and even the monkey cage. If Mick Jagger had been there, singing ''Get Off My Cloud,'' he too would have been left in solitary - no match at all for Old Black Eyes.

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Those eyes! Only the boldest of artists would dare to paint black circles of fur on a white face and then dab a black nose beneath and cap the design with perfectly proportioned black ears. The panda is nature as an impressionist. Let's say it and get it over with. The panda is cute - the toy Teddy bear of animals.

As if stunning looks were not enough, the panda has personality. A panda can be playful and friendly, with a becoming touch of shyness. Our London panda liked to sit in a corner with front paws over the eyes, before heaving himself up on his rear paws and scratching his back ecstatically against a rock.

There is something about animals standing on two feet that unfairly charms humans. We impute intelligence to the balancing act. Even dinosaurs in science-fiction movies seem to take on Ice Age smarts, though they try our credulity more than the panda, who strolls, for a step or two, rather like Sir Winston Churchill.

Has nature shortchanged the panda in any particular? The beast even has the advantage of exotic origins, clambering down from the mountains of China and Tibet. If you see a panda in a zoo, you cannot quite believe the animal is real. Think of the effect of seeing a panda for the first time against a Chinese snowscape - pure myth.

The history of men and panda does not do men a lot of credit. We now have the Panda Research and Conservation Center in Wolong, with the Chinese government, the World Wildlife Fund, the New York Zoological Society, and the Smithsonian Institution all involved in saving this endangered species. But earlier on, human met panda in the usual way - weapon in hand.

In 1928 Teddy Roosevelt's sons, Theodore and Kermit, accompanied by a Tibetan scholar, a Chinese big-game hunter, four native trackers, and a pack of American hounds, set out on what they later described in their book-length account as the bully sport of ''Trailing the Giant Panda.'' The brothers were dismally failing in their trailing when they stumbled upon an elderly male, awaking from a nap, and blasted away. Their victim did not even whimper as he fell, prompting the Roosevelts to agree with their guides that the panda as a breed is a ''gentleman.''

The panda - when he is not sleepy - can hold his own against wild dogs and leopards. But he is not a carnivore, maintaining himself on 40 to 90 pounds of bamboo daily, and he is a gentle animal, if not a gentleman. Perhaps in recognizing the gentleness of the panda, the Roosevelts were acknowledging the unnecessary ferocity in themselves and their race.

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Of course the ideal is to see the panda neither as a noble Teddy bear nor as a 300-pound killer brute. But information has been curiously slow in gathering - even allowing for the panda's remote habitat - and this may say something about the secret partiality humans hold for folklore over fact.

We are really just beginning to catch up - almost too late - with Abbe Armand David, the French missionary and natural scientist, who, on a March day in 1869, became the first Westerner to see a giant panda. Pere David, a man so gentle he kept a pet spider, also discovered 58 species of birds and about 100 insects during his 12 years in China.

Neither a nature-sentimentalist nor a Darwinian determinist, Pere David wrote; ''I passionately love the beauties of nature; the marvels of the hand of God transport me with such admiration that in comparison the finest work of man seems only trivial.''

This still reads like sensible and inspired advice for anybody looking at a panda, or almost anything else.

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