Now pay attention everyone. Below is a giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Above is a puppy (juvenile Canis lupus familiaris) painted black and white. Spot the difference?
If you did then you're doing better than some of the patrons of the Orfei Circus in Brescia, Italy, who were fooled into thinking they had witnessed, and indeed had photos taken with, baby pandas.
The circus's fraud was caught by representatives of the Animal Protection Party (APP) following up reports of animal cruelty.
"At the entrance of the circus were two animals who were presented as panda cubs. The staff invited families to take pictures of children in the company of those sweet fur balls. But when our volunteers approached, they realized that those animals had nothing to do with the pandas. It was, in reality, two chow chows painted black and white to look like pandas," APP President Fabrizio Catelli told Giornalettismo.
Ironically, it seems the circus might be innocent on the cruelty charge. Dogs are, after all, much better suited to human company than pandas, having at least 19,000 years practice. The Italian Forestry Crop have determined that the puppies' only sign of ill health is watery eyes, possibly brought on by too many camera flashes. Consequently, they have allowed the handlers to keep the dogs on condition they not be displayed.
The APP are dissatisfied with this, Catelli saying, "We consider it unacceptable that the animals are ridiculed for the pleasure of others, and not least for economic reasons."
Charges of misrepresentation however, might be harder to beat. Despite being one of the most ancient breeds of dog in the world, chow chows are definitively canines. Moreover, the dogs apparently had "two false passports" to facilitate their importation from Hungary. The circus's secretary has denied fraud on the basis that it was "obvious they were dogs", although the parents who paid so their children could have photos taken with the puppies might not think the issue is so black and white.
It seems, alas, that there is nothing new under the sun, with dogs bred to look like pandas being hugely popular with the booming Chinese middle class, with dogs such as those below the latest hot thing. It is likely however, that the Chinese buyers know what they are getting, being familiar with what real pandas look like.
The chances of real pandas turning up in circuses is very low. Pandas are exceptionally valuable drawcards for zoos and China guards them jealosly, only sending them to foreign zoos on ten year loans for prices of up to a million dollars. At least it's better than trying to pass a ferret with a wooden leg off as an elephant.