Giant panda Mei Sheng moved to Wolong, China on November 5, 2007. Lisa Bryant of the San Diego Zoo accompanied him on his journey and has shared the trip through blog installments. See Lisa’s previous blog, Mei Sheng on His Own.
Hello again. I’m glad so many of you were able to share in the details of Mei Sheng’s journey to the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center last month. Although I experienced pride, anxiety at times, joy, and a wee bit of sorrow during the trip, it was not “all work and no play.” On the day following the good bye’s to our sweet boy Mei Sheng I had a “free” day of sorts. There were no animal moves planned, no ceremonies to attend, and Mei Sheng was settled in at the Center’s quarantine facility.
My definition of “play” may differ from yours. It had been almost five days since I had worked as a keeper. Oh sure, there were the great moments interacting with Mei Sheng to get him safely to his destination and the occasional heave ho of crates here and there. But I hadn’t picked up a rake and shovel, or tied a bundle of anything, for almost a week! I think I was having withdrawals. I asked Dr. Desheng if it would be alright for me to spend a day with the keepers at Wolong, working with the pandas. He said he had hoped I could give a short lecture before lunch that day, but if I wanted to work on grounds that was fine, too. “Yea, I get to work with the keepers!” I thought. “Boo, I have to give a lecture,” I thought at the same time. Not that I didn’t want to interact with their staff, but by this time I was just about talked out, considering all the media and panda fans we had encountered since we left San Diego. But I had been given a DVD of Bai Yun’s ultrasounds, and Mei Sheng’s keepers had sent me off with a DVD of their training efforts with him. Wouldn’t it be nice for me to watch the DVDs with Wolong’s frontline employees and be able to answer any questions they had first hand? Perfect! I had my day planned.
The morning started out very cold. (I’m not a fan of cold. That is why I live in San Diego.) Nonetheless, I was excited to see my old friends Wu and Wei, who had been to the San Diego Zoo several years before. I had been able to pick them out of the crowd during Mei Sheng’s welcome-home ceremony. Wu, a lead keeper like myself, met me at 8:30 a.m. He got a pair of coveralls for me to wear while I worked with him in the maternity area. I watched the little juvenile pandas just waking up across the way. I could hear keepers calling their animals off exhibit into holdings so that the business of cleaning exhibits and feeding could be done. It felt comfortable! (Lisa is pictured with one of the one-year-olds.)
Wu and I walked to his area past some of the other volunteer staff who participate in their program. Everyone was busy. Wu opened all the doors, of course, but he let me feed the females to help shift them where he needed them to be. We traded sweeping up and scrubbing rooms and hosing as we moved along the row of buildings. I took pictures of the blood draw sleeves that were affixed to most bedrooms, an idea I like to think San Diego helped them cultivate. He commented how he liked San Diego’s hoses better. I know why: we have fantastic water pressure, but more importantly, our hoses have the threads we can attach nozzles to at their ends; Wolong’s hoses were just long enough to be able to reach what we were hosing and they had no threaded end, just a blunt cut. Brooms made of all-natural materials and large, metal boxes with wire handles for shovels were our tools. The routine was status quo: sweep, scrub, hose, squeegee. No disinfectant was allowed in this area due to the mothers’ sensitivities while they have cubs.
There was only one bedroom I was not allowed to enter, as the mother was still in the cradling phase with her cub. I was allowed to watch from the building door as Wu entered the bedroom with this dam. He walked right up to her while she cradled her cub in her arms and showed her some food to entice her to shift for cleaning. As he led her to another room, the mother complied by walking on three legs and holding the cub in her right fore arm. How cool is that?! I’d never seen firsthand anything like this before. Our management of giant pandas is quite different in San Diego. Though I think we could probably get away with entering a pen with our pandas in an emergency situation, it is not in any way, shape, or form a practice that we employ. We really have no need. Despite the easy-going demeanor and slow, deliberate pace, giant pandas are still bears. There is a picture on one of the graphic panels, outside the San Diego Zoo’s panda gift shop, of two bears engaged in less-than-friendly communication. That is probably my favorite panda picture because it reminds me daily of that very fact. But I digress. Every other bedroom we cleaned had a mother and, in the corner of the room, a cub. Wu also let me place those cubs in safe, dry boxes while we cleaned the bedroom and then return them when we finished. It took the place, for me, of the cub exams I was missing back home with our newest cub, now known as Zhen Zhen.
We had time for one more bedroom before I needed to prepare for my keeper talk. The mother was still eating her bamboo. I stood there with my bread ready to offer, but she paid me no attention. Mr. Wu pointed to her and said, “Hua Mei” so casually I almost didn’t hear him. “What?” I had to ask. He repeated himself and I pointed to the little cub in the corner and said “Hua Mei’s baby?” “Yes, one of them” he replied. “The other is in the nursery.” Ohmigosh, ohmigosh! Our little Mei Mei all grown up. I was gazing at one of the twins from her third set since she had arrived in Wolong! (Hua Mei is pictured at right.)
It makes me sound so lame, but if I didn’t know any better I’d swear I was looking at Bai Yun: a large female totally involved in one of her favorite pastimes…eating. The cub was sleeping comfortably in the den corner, which has always translated for Bai that it was a good time to mack out on any and all food available. Like mother, like daughter! Hua Mei even sported the same laissez-faire attitude which seemed to say, in my anthropomorphic translation, “There’s my baby. Help yourselves, but don’t wake her up. I’m busy.” I snapped some pictures, but we still had work to do. I was unable to be present for any of the twin swapping that occurs, but later in the day I went looking for Wu, who works in the nursery. I didn’t find him, but one of the nursery staff held a cub up to the window and waved its paw at me. It was Mei’s other baby. I fired off a snapshot (pictured above) and spent the rest of the time ogling the little face through the window. Funny how they knew I’d be interested in seeing Mei and her babies. What a joy!
After my keeper work fix, I went back to my room to change for our keeper talk which, unfortunately, did not happen due to technical difficulties. So after lunch, we decided to take in the sites. Did you know that there is a Giant Panda Museum devoted to all things panda? It is not far from Wolong’s panda facility. We had our own docent to tour us through the facility. Very interesting! From murals to biological samples to historical and prehistoric exhibits, it was a fantastic opportunity to see. We also took a ride farther up the road to Panda Valley. At the entrance is an interpretive exhibition hall in the making. Beyond that, there is a beautiful hike through mountains and caves across suspension bridges and up and down hand-made steps surrounded by forest and waterfalls. Just breath taking! It turned out to be an enriching day for me and a wonderful farewell to Wolong that I’ll hold in my memories for years to come.
Lisa Bryant is a team area lead at the San Diego Zoo.
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