Panda keeper Angie Fiore and her husband traveled to China last month. One of the stops on their itinerary was the Wolong Nature Reserve. She shares her story with us.
Some days, 6 a.m. doesn’t come early enough! This was the day I was looking forward to since our sweet boy, Mei Sheng, left. Today I would meet Dr. Tang, head veterinarian at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, Wolong Nature Reserve, who would take me to see my old friend. Yes, I was in China and at Wolong.
We took the short drive up the road from the main center at Wolong to the quarantine facility. It was very cold, in the 30’s, but I didn’t notice. Mei Sheng was here! He had to be isolated from others, both human and panda alike, to ensure that he is healthy before being released into their panda population. Not to worry, he did have company; his new keeper Mr. Xie, or Scott as we know him, was with him 24/7.
Scott escorted us across the bridge to the facility. I was so excited I barely noticed the swaying bridge and raging river below us. Upon arrival, Mei Sheng was resting outside. I called to him and he perked up and looked somewhat confused. He slowly made his way over to us. Being used to just Scott there at the facility, he was very curious about the four others in our party. After he was finished investigating the others, he came over to me and presented his back for the longest back scratch ever. I even got some belly rubs in between the rolls and somersaults. Yes, he remembered.
Over the next few days, I worked with Mei Sheng and Scott. Just like he did at the San Diego Zoo, Mei Sheng welcomed me daily with early morning bleats. He also very much enjoyed the six feedings he received each day. Scott and I did daily training sessions as well. Mei Sheng remembered all of the behaviors he learned while at the Zoo, except for one that he was rusty on, but this was within reason. Scott had been modifying his blood-draw behavior to accommodate their blood-draw sleeve. Instead of grabbing the blood-draw sleeve handle perpendicularly with his forepaw, he now had to grab horizontally and “underhand.” No problem for Mei Sheng!
On our second day together, Scott informed me we would do a blood draw, the first draw since he has been at Wolong. Without a hitch, with Scott as trainer, Mei Sheng sat patiently, eating apples while the vet collected blood. Good boy! Another change I noticed was that Mei Sheng always kept a very close eye on what Scott was doing. I realized then that the torch had been passed, a bond and trust had developed; Mei Sheng has a new keeper, and a very good one at that.
In between feeding sessions, training, and cleaning, much playing and back scratching took place over those few days. It was so great to see my panda friend and to make a new one. Being at the center and meeting Scott and the other staff at Wolong really has put my mind at ease. Mei Sheng is in good hands and in an incredibly beautiful environment, his natural home.
As most of my time was spent up at the quarantine facility, I didn’t have the opportunity to spend much time at Wolong’s main center. However, when I first arrived and toured the center I came across a large female panda, resting peacefully on a log, foot swaying gently, while one of her cubs rested close by. Even though I had only seen Hua Mei when she was a youngster, before I became an employee of the Zoo, I knew immediately it was she! The resemblance to Bai Yun is amazing; Hua Mei is a beautiful bear.
Just as much as I was looking forward to my reunion with Mei Sheng, I was also dreading another goodbye. The day had come too quickly. Scott saved the last feeding for me. I did what was probably my last training session with Mei Sheng, who was great as always, and gave a quick scratch and made a hasty exit. We crossed that raging river once again. Through my tears, I thanked Scott for everything and told him that I was happy he was Mei Sheng’s new keeper. He put his hand on my shoulder and reassured me that he will take good care of “our’ boy.
The other day, Scott e-mailed me to say Mei Sheng completed his quarantine and returned to the main center on December 12. He reports that Mei Sheng is very comfortable in his new exhibit, which is very similar to ours here at the Zoo. I am sure he is charming the Wolong visitors as I write.
Thanks to my wonderful colleagues, my new friends at Wolong. I am extremely honored to work with such lovely creatures, and to know that the work I do everyday is a global effort to save a species.
Angie Fiore is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.
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