By Ian Shapira
The Washington Post
— The addicts are seemingly everywhere. They sneak peeks in the mornings before work. They watch at the office, keeping the live footage open on their computer screens all day. They linger long enough that they get kicked off for reaching the 15-minute time limit, only to hit the refresh button and start all over again.
The object of their obsession: the Smithsonian National Zoo's panda cams, which offer mesmerizing glimpses of the zoo's female giant panda, Mei Xiang, nursing and nuzzling her squealing newborn cub.
"I am on the panda cam right now. I look at it between appointments. I watch it at night. I watch it when I get up in the morning. I watch it when I go to bed. I am completely entranced," said Marjorie Swett, 62, a Bethesda psychotherapist, who, if she wanted, could do a side gig as a panda-cam color commentator. "Right now, she's sleeping and cuddling. . . . Now she's rolling over. She just went from an upright position and went gracefully on the ground, still folding the baby into herself . . . and her legs are up the wall. She looks totally comfortable."
Since Mei Xiang gave birth on Aug. 23, legions of panda lovers have bombarded the zoo's website, clicking on one of two available panda cams to spy on the mother and cub as they bond inside what the animals believe is their private den.
From late July (when new high-definition cameras were installed) to Friday, the zoo has recorded more than 847,000 clicks on its panda-cam Web page, with about 529,000 of those coming since the day of the cub's birth, according to Mike Thorpe, the zoo's Web specialist. More than 52,000 hours of panda-cam viewing have occurred since July — and more than 30,000 since the cub's birth. (That doesn't even include the number of times people have clicked "play" on the panda cam on the zoo's mobile app, data that weren't available Friday.)
The zoo's pandas live in a veritable surveillance state, with 38 cameras capturing Mei Xiang, her newborn and the male panda, Tien Tien. The action tantalizing much of the Washington region and beyond happens inside one of Mei Xiang's dens, where mother and child bond under $12,000 worth of high-definition cameras and infrared lights.
The zoo used to have only standard-definition cameras that let the public watch the pandas on Windows-enabled computers. The old system kicked people off after only five minutes of continuous viewing.
But this year, thanks to grants from an anonymous donor and the Ford Motor Co. Fund, the zoo upgraded to a system that lets people using mobile and desktop devices — Mac or PC — watch for 15 minutes before being bumped off. (There's no limit if you're watching the panda cam on the zoo's app.)
But even the tricked-out technology wasn't able to stop the servers from crashing on the day Mei Xiang gave birth. The panda cam on the zoo's Web site was clicked on 128,000 times. Since then, the average number of daily clicks has fallen to about 66,000.
The most recent footage to titillate the panda populace was of the newborn trying to stand up. ("At least something important is happening in DC!" someone clever from Maine tweeted, along with a link to the video.)
Lisa Grove, a bookkeeper at a Frederick construction company, keeps the panda cam open all day at work. She never forgets to refresh her browser every 15 minutes. ("I'm greedy like that," she said, laughing.) But she insists that her panda voyeurism does not raise objections from colleagues.
"I do my work! I do my work!" said Grove, 47. "I told [my colleagues] when the panda was born. I was like, 'Hey — the baby panda was born!' " Her co-workers were not as excited as she was. "They were like, 'Oh. Okay.' I'm alone in my little world."
Grove suspects that her interest in the zoo's panda reality show has something to do with being a mom.
"When the last panda was born, and it died a few days later, that was really sad," said Grove, who has one son. "Being a mother, you can kind of feel what she was going through."
Her husband, she said, accepts her addiction: "We've been together a long time. He understands me. He tolerates my Panda Camness."
Alyssa Marciniak, 26, an Arlington County research analyst for a government contractor, said she keeps the panda cam open on her desktop computer at work.
"Pretty much whenever I hear something from the pandas, I'll click on it," she said. "Some people at work think it's cute, but one of my friends was like, 'Are you watching the panda again?' I said, 'Yes, because it might be doing something exciting.' He laughed, kinda."
Marciniak is philosophical about her motives. "It's sitting in a little cube, and so am I."
Anna York, a graduate student and mental health worker from Lima, Ohio, said she watches multiple panda cams — the images beamed from San Diego and Atlanta are companions to those at the National Zoo, she said.
She estimated that she watches for a few minutes every few hours each day, and she feels completely justified in her panda voyeurism. "One of my research projects was on the fluctuating literacy rate in Moldova. So when you're knee-deep in academic journals, you just need a few minutes to break and watch the pandas, and get back to work."
Mary Wright Baylor, 60, a pastoral care nurse from Fairfax County, said she's been occasionally distracted from the real world — as in, her daughter's wedding this weekend — because she's been so immersed in the panda cam. She watched it for 20 minutes straight one morning this week.
"My daughter the bride just told me that my fascination/obsession with the panda is 'not normal' Guess I need to pay her attn," Baylor tweeted Friday to Anne Lane Witt, a friend who is an Episcopal priest in Mechanicsburg, Va., and fellow panda-cam aficionado.
"Or maybe she will get it one day," Witt wrote back. "[The pandas] are awesome, after all."
"Srsly. Not sure I'll get #pandacam reception at Shrine Mont," Baylor replied, referring to the Virginia church camp where her daughter will get hitched. "I'll have serious withdrawal, tho. You woman the cam 4 me, okay?"