October 17, 2006
We didn’t spend long at all in Chengdu but it was obvious that it was a large city (as it is the capital of the Sichuan province) complete with everything
from Burberry to Starbuck’s. There are three million people that live in the actual city and over ten million people that live in the entire area of
Chengdu. That’s a lot of people! As we heading out of the city, the outskirts reminded me an awful lot of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies
have set up shop there and even the architecture of the buildings look like those back home.
We had a five-hour bumpy ride up into the mountains to our featured destination: Wolong National Natural Reserve in the Tibetan plateau. After a
couple of delays (including a truck in the middle of the road retrieving large boulders from the river with a crane) we finally got here. Ahhh…. To be
honest, I wasn’t totally sure that we would end up arriving today.
Of course, a person doesn’t need to come all the way up to Wolong to see pandas. It turns out there’s a breeding center in Chengdu. Apparently this
one was modeled after the one up here in Wolong. The facility in Chengdu, however, is supposed to pale in comparison to this one. I guess what
Wolong lacks in convenience it makes up for in quality.
I can’t stress how impressed I was by this facility. The grounds are truly beautiful and the pandas are able to be in a natural habitat. That is another
thing that makes Wolong a step above the rest.
We were first greeted by the Director of the facility (Master Han) and briefed on some of the things we would need to know. Of course, we needed the
translating skills of Frank (our Chengdu guide who has very minimal English skills himself) to understand any of what was being said.
Around this time we were paired up with our ‘masters’. Each master is responsible for certain pandas on the premises. I was paired up with Zhang.
Since it was the end of the workday I will meet my pandas tomorrow. Until then, we were given our uniforms. I felt a bit like a prison inmate. Or a
janitor. It was kind of hard to say exactly…
We all decided to spend the last couple hours of the day roaming around the grounds and checking out the different pandas. There are pandas of all
ages – everything from mature adults (that are around 17 years old) to a nursery with panda bears that are less than a month old! There are three
pandas still in incubators with their little blankies. Panda babies are actually born pink. It is said that they are far from cute at that point. These little
guys had passed their pink phase and were black and white (as it isn’t long before they get their fur). Just near the incubators were three more panda
babies that were slightly older and had their little homes on the floor (much like newborn puppies).
We also got sucked into the ‘kindergarten’ area. This is where the ‘kids’ are – the pandas who are about one-year old. There are about ten of them and
it is hard to believe that pandas can get cuter than they are at this phase in their panda-hood. It took a lot of restraint to not jump in there with them
but I managed to show some self-control. I curbed the urge knowing that I would be coming back here the next few days…
October 18, 2006
Jen Nathan reporting for panda duty!
Today would be the first official day of volunteering with the panda cuties. I met up with Zhang and we went directly to the Food Preparation building
were ‘cakes’ are being made throughout the day. Now these aren’t really cakes…they are the same size as rounds of cheese and are extremely dense
and crumbly. Zhang is the master to three pandas – Drum Drum (a 17-year old male), Zhang Ka (a six-year old new mama) and her little baby. I guess
this would technically be two and a half pandas as the little one is still being breastfed and can’t be touched by humans yet.
I would learn early on that Drum Drum only eats the ‘cake’ and bamboo while Zhang Ka also eats carrots and apples. There is definitely a
communication gap with me and my master but there are a few things that are easy to understand. For example, when we’re feeding certain things to
one panda and other thing to another panda…well, it’s clear that one panda eats one thing and the other one eats another. I know, I know…my
intelligence is astonishing.
Drum Drum’s cake is cut into small pieces which I fed to him by hand. He is as gentle as can be. Zhang Ka was just given a huge hunk of ‘cake’ and held
it in her hands as she ate it. We lured her into a separate little area in her enclosure with the food so that we could clean the enclosure from the
day/night before. We worked our way around her baby. Only the mama panda can touch the baby at this age and nobody wants to rile a mama panda
up. Well, at least not this panda volunteer. Now that the living conditions were up to panda standards, we fetched some bamboo to bring into Zhang
Fun fact: Panda molars are seven times larger that humans’ which enables them to eat bamboo.
Drum Drum still needed a nice cleansing of his area so we went over to get his place up to par. This guy had enough poop to sweep up to give my arm a
workout as I moved the bucket-thing to the wheel barrel. He also made a mess out of the bamboo in his area. We cleared it all out and then swept both
in the inner and outer areas of his enclosure. Then we took a hose and watered down the indoor part of his area. Drum Drum could now be proud of
his living quarters. Only one final touch needed to be added and that was more bamboo for the little fella. Zhang and I fetched a huge bunch (very
heavy stuff!) and then arranged it in his area. At this point, my uniform was beginning to make me feel more like a gardener than anything else.
Zhang and I went back to a room so that she could write our morning activities and observations in her log book. In this room were ten monitors, each
one showing one of the new mama pandas with her little baby in their enclosure. This was great to watch. While some were sleeping with their little
babies, several of them were actually breastfeeding. I think it’s the first time that I can ever say that I found it adorable to watch a baby being
breastfed. Actually, I know it’s the first time. Sadly, my little Zhang Ka stood out a bit on the monitors as she was the only panda who did not have her
baby cuddled up to her. Thinking about it, the different times I saw her today there was never any contact between her and her baby. I am starting to
think that she might possibly have post-partum depression. Of course I can’t ask about this because there is no way that anybody here could translate
this question. Who knows…maybe I’m right and I’m a born animal psychologist???
We checked on Drum Drum not too much later so that we could feed him some more of his cake. I saw the most peculiar thing this time around. He
climbed his back legs onto the wall and while in the handstand-like position, he peed. So bizarre.
In the end, we fed Drum Drum his cake six different times today. In between that, he feasted on his bamboo. I never saw him sleeping but I am sure he
caught a few zzz’s during the day. Really, all these animals do is eat and sleep. When they aren’t doing one, you can be sure they’re doing the other.
Just before we were leaving, we noticed that a panda bear was being transported in a cage. It turned out that medical equipment was also being
brought over. While someone fed the panda to coax him, they secured her in the cage and shaved a bit of her tummy. Then they did an ultrasound on
her. We knew she wasn’t pregnant but we weren’t really sure what they were looking for. And once again, with the communications barriers it would
be a pretty safe bet that we weren’t going to find out.
Dirty and exhausted, my day of volunteering came to an end. It was incredible working so closely to the panda bears. I don’t care if panda poop
happens to fall onto my feet again, I am looking forward to tomorrow!
October 19, 2006
Because I’m such a quick study, I could read Zhang’s mind when she walked up to me. Off we would go to the Food Preparation Center to get our
black-and-white cutie pies their breakfast. I would find out that these ‘cakes’ are made up of rice, grains, vitamins and ground bamboo. They are
made on the premises and we got ours out of the oven – nice and warm.
Drum Drum ate his food with no problems. Then we headed to Zhang Ka. She was sleeping with her baby in her arms so breakfast was going to have to
be postponed for her. This led to the exciting task of cleaning Drum Drum’s area. Ahhh…cleaning up all of the bamboo, sweeping up all of the leaves
and, of course, scooping up all of the poop. Is it any wonder why I am paying them to be here? But I do have to say ‘Bless the Panda Bears’ for their
lack of smelliness. And this (thankfully) includes their poop.
As we were going to go check on Zhang Ka, I was summonsed over to the ‘kindergarten’ area with the kiddie panda bears. This would be our moment
to go in and play with them. Hooray! The little guys were in a slightly hyper mood when I went in which made it extremely fun – even as they were
trying to claw their way up my leg. The problem with these little bundles of cuteness was that when they came up to me, it almost seemed like playing
with puppies. Until a few seconds later when you realize that their paws and teeth are quite a bit sharper than those of puppies. And sometimes it was a
bit too late as the claws and teeth literally stuck into my clothes and got a good grasp on my arm. That’s when a master would take care of the problem
and separate the teeth from the clothing. Even with a puncture or two into my skin, I was not ready to leave the ‘kindergarten’ area. But sadly, my
time there had ended and it was time for me to go back to work.
I went to the office with the monitors and observed the mama bears. I have to now admit that animal psychologist actually might not be in my future
as I have yet to see Zhang Ka without her baby in tow today. So much for my post-partum depression theory. I guess I won’t quit my day job. Wait…I
don’t even have a day job. Note to self: I guess I have to work on that when I get home. Another note to self: You aren’t home so there is no need to
think about this right now.
My last chore of the day would be fetching huge batches of bamboo shoots for Zhang Ka. After that, it was time to head to our awards celebration
where we would receive our certificates for a job well done. Kudos to us. The pandas were all loved and adored by all of us over the past few days.
Tonight we had a ‘good-bye’ dinner with all of our masters. Though there was the typical communication gap, a good time was had by all. This is when
we gave our masters their ‘thank you’ gifts. I arranged to have Vicki, my roommate, bring over some chocolate from home so that I could give my
master a gift ‘from home’. And as luck would have it, Vicki brought over San Francisco’s very own Ghirardelli. Of course this would have been a bit
cooler if Zhang actually knew what San Francisco was (I’m still not sure if I was able to communicate that it is a city where I was from). The only
problem with giving a gift like this was the fact that they don’t do dessert after dinner in China. And now Zhang had these absolutely delicious filled
chocolate squares sitting on the table just looking at me. I used all of the restraint in my body to not ask Zhang to open the bag to try one so that I
could then try to score one for myself. Restraint sometimes sucks. As I’m typing this, all I can think of was the dark chocolate squares - especially the
ones filled with mint. Note to self: Tell my sister to bring some chocolate from home when she meets me in Thailand.
We all had an excellent time up here. But I think we all had one complaint about the experience. It was near-impossible to find out any information
about the pandas as nobody here spoke more than a few words of English. Even our tour guide who brought us up here didn’t understand what we
were saying a large percentage of the time. Many of our questions remained unanswered. I guess there’s always the internet, right?
October 20, 2006
Before heading back to Chengdu, we stopped by Wolong to say good-bye to the pandas. We had almost three hours to do this. I just really can’t get
over how cute these guys were. I realized today how much these guys resemble the CAL Bear mascot. Except for the fact that these guys are black and
white and the CAL Bear is brown. But they both have that same mopey posture (a bit hunched over).
I also forgot to mention in past journals two observations that I have had. The first is that pandas scratch their butts a lot. The second is that after
pandas breastfeed, they lay their looking a bit exhausted – looking like they’ve just had some panda lovin’…if you know what I mean.
We also learned the reason why so many pandas have duplicate names (i.e. Ling Ling, Drum Drum, Li Li, etc.). The answer was simply ‘because it’s
cute’. Well, that makes sense. Growing up, I had two nicknames from my parents. One was ‘Jen Jen’ which makes sense. The other one (which I had
never questioned because it just seemed normal to me since I had it since I was a baby) was Fu Fu. I have absolutely no idea why my parents called me
this (maybe it had to do with the fact that they thought I looked Chinese when I was a baby) but I would come to find out that a Chinese panda born in
Wolong was given this same name! Sadly, I wouldn’t get to meet my ‘Fu Fu’ counterpart as she has been lent to a zoo.
Let me end this journal with some panda facts that I learned while I was here (from some of the different signs that were posted at Wolong)…
- Pandas are vegetarian carnivores. Well, there’s an oxymoron if ever I heard one!
- It is very rare that twins can survive in the wild as mama panda bears can really only care for one baby. This center makes it possible to have
both babies survive as there is a nursery where they can nurse the second baby to survival while the panda takes care of the other baby. It is
crucial to have both babies survive (in cases of twins) in order to increase the population of pandas at a more rapid rate.
- 99% of the panda’s diet is bamboo. The San Diego Zoo and Wolong created a recipe for the ‘cake’ that the panda’s are given. The San Diego Zoo
found that this cake helped give pandas in captivity the nutrition that they need.
- Babies are not named until they are about one-year old.
- Pandas grow up being solitary animals. This makes sense in the wild as females normally just raise one panda. But I have to wonder if this will
change as pandas are being raised in captivity and with many other bears.
- Panda bears are in a class of their own (‘The Giant Panda’) but it is seen as a cross between a bear and a raccoon.
- Mothers are only in heat for three days per year. They only give birth to one or two at a time after pregnancies that are about 80-180 days
long. This is a major reason why it’s so hard to increase the panda population.
- Female pandas are picky with their mates. If they don’t have an ‘attraction’ to the male panda, they can still have some panda lovin’ but it will
be impossible for the female to actually get pregnant. This is probably a reason why many females are artificially inseminated.
- Young and inexperienced male pandas sometimes have to watch a video to know what to do when it comes to mating. Who knew there was a
‘panda soft-porn’ market out there???
Now that my time at Wolong is over, I have one thing to say…
Viva la panda bear!
I've got a secret for the little guy.
An itty-bitty panda bear.
A panda and his bamboo.