• Rose Smith

Article: The Fuzzy Cultural Exchange—A History of Animal Diplomacy


Photo Source: Flickr


Animals are universally loved. Not only do we love them as fellow creatures, but they can also carry a lot of cultural identity. For instance, in the United States, we find that we identify ourselves with the bald eagle, and different states have their own state birds and creatures, and the state bird of my home state, Massachusetts, are the black-capped chickadee and the wild turkey. Throughout history and through today, animals have been used in diplomacy as shows of soft power.

Animal diplomacy has been a way to show power and culture. In Ancient Rome, emperors accumulated vast collections of animals and paraded them through town (Huffington Post). The idea was that if the emperor had control over the likes of lions and tigers, he was powerful enough to control his people. At one time, Emperor Trajan had at least 11,000 animals, both wild and domestic. Egyptian rulers would send their giraffes to garner goodwill with their European neighbors. In 1487, Egypt sent a giraffe over to the Medici family in Florence to gain goodwill with the family and to cement an alliance against the Ottoman Empire. The giraffe was allowed to wander through the city, and onlookers were stunned by its beauty. In Asia, China had been engaging in so-called “Panda Diplomacy” since the 600s, where Empress Wu Zetian sent pandas to the Japanese Emperor (Wall Street Journal).


Even in modern times, the tradition of animal diplomacy has been kept alive and well. In preserving tradition, China has kept up panda diplomacy into the modern era and arguably kicked off the tradition of modern animal diplomacy. During the Cold War, China sent pandas to the Soviet Union (Foreign Policy). Once former President Nixon endeavored to open diplomatic ties with China, China gifted the US two pandas, and Nixon sent back two musk oxen in return. The two pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, lived at the Smithsonian National Zoo for decades. One interesting aspect of this so-called “Panda Diplomacy” is that the pandas and its offspring are still technically owned by China, so in a bid for coercive diplomacy, China can also threaten to take away the pandas once political tensions become tense. In another example of modern animal diplomacy, to cement their ties as sister cities, Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, sent over two pangolins to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, with a detailed set of care instructions (Wall Street Journal). The Czech city hopes that it one day can also have a set of Czech-born pangolins. This would be a marvelous feat because the Taipei zoo was able to successfully breed pangolins for the first time only recently.


Animals can often be associated with a national identity. Over the course of history, diplomacy has been meted out through sending animals. Sometimes it’s to show power, and sometimes it has been a sign of goodwill among countries. In modern times, animal diplomacy has also become an important aspect of international politics. Overall, it’s an absolutely interesting aspect of soft power that tends to be understated.



Rose Smith is the blog editor of Twenty-two Twenty-eight. When she isn’t writing about the world around her, she is often found listening to music, watching movies, and going on walks with her dogs.


You can find her on Instagram here and on Twitter here.