Posted by: Tommy | October 19, 2011


Sorry for the lapse in posting.  The Chinese government decided to block mid-visit, so we haven’t had blog access in over a week.  But we did have our busiest day to date – 235 visitors on Monday – and now have a backlog of China stories to share.  We’ll keep those coming while enjoying Japan.  And I’m happy to report that we are in better spirits after leaving all the rain in Yangshuo behind.  So, without further delay, a post about pandas…


Q: What’s black and white and red all over?

A: A giant panda eating an apple.

Did you know that apples rank highly among the favorite foods of the black and white bears?  Neither did we.  But, during a day as volunteers at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center, we learned that and many other things about the world’s cuddliest bear.

One of Anna’s funniest comments on China’s approach to foreign affairs is her assertion that, when other governments accuse them of violating human rights, China just lends a panda to that country.  The other foreign leaders take one look into the eyes of the panda and they forget all about the atrocities.  Awww, that panda is so cute.

And justifiably so.

We took the 25 hour trip from Yangshuo to Chengdu specifically to see the pandas.  Of the world’s 2000 remaining pandas, 85% live in the Sichuan province of China.  1600 of them are wild, living in the mountains around Chengdu, while the two research centers (Chengdu Panda Breeding Center and Bifengxia) hold about 100 each.   There are about 40 pandas in zoos outside of China worldwide and the rest live wild in neighboring provinces of Sichuan.

Because of our extended stay in Yangshuo, we had only 36 hours in Chengdu.  Upon arriving at our hostel, we researched their panda-visiting options and opted for the panda volunteer experience.  The price to visit the pandas with the hostel is 100 Yuan ($15).  Included in that is a ride to and from the Center and admission.  You can walk around, gawking at pandas for 3 hours before being taken back.  But for 600 Yuan ($100), you can get a ride there, then spend the entire day (8am to 3:30) with an English-speaking guide.  You go in the Staff Only areas, assisting the keepers in cleaning out the over-night pens, clearing out old bamboo and bringing in fresh food.  And, the best part, feeding the pandas their daily apple treats and panda cakes.  We opted to spend the extra money and get a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a very rare animal.

Upon arrival, Bao (our guide) introduced himself to us.  We’d read that they generally take 5-6 volunteers per day.  But on this particular day, only Anna and I have signed up.  So Bao would be with us for the duration, answering any panda-related questions that we’d come up with.  He spoke great English, was incredibly knowledgeable and extremely friendly.  The first thing we did was load into a car and drive (skipping a 40 minute walk) to the top of the hill, where the main panda house sits.

There are 9 pandas in the panda house.  The most famous of these, and probably the most famous panda in the world, is Mei Lin.  Mei Lin was the first panda born in the U.S., the product of artificial insemination at the Atlanta Zoo in 2006.  She’s also the spokes-panda for the WWF (wildlife, not wrestling).  My favorite Mei Lin tidbit – when she first arrived back from the States last year, the Breeding Center had to hire an English-speaking trainer because Mei Lin couldn’t understand any of the Chinese commands.  She would only respond to the English commands.  She’s now fully bilingual – which means she can come, sit and ignore you fluently in Chinese and English.

Mei Lin - World's Most Famous Panda (apparently)

Later, Anna and I would clean up Mei Lin’s poop and bring her fresh bamboo.  Ko Be, her neighbor, would be better suited for a wrestling endorsement.  He’s the largest panda in the Center, standing 1.8 meters (about 6 ft.) and weighing 270 lbs.  The other adult panda in that panda house is a 27 year old female that Bao just called “the old lady”.  Pandas typically live 20-25 years in captivity, so she’s an exceptionally old panda (though a panda in a Japanese zoo died a few years ago over the age of 30, the oldest on record).

The 6 other pandas in this panda house were “teenagers” in panda years, which means 3 actual years.  All 6 of these pandas are housed together in one large enclosure.  Pandas are solitary creatures, meeting in the wild only occasionally to mate.  The teenagers will live together until they are 5, at which time they will be separated and each given their own space.  Space is the largest problem for the panda breeding center, as wild pandas have a territory of roughly 6 sq. kilometers.  Captive pandas don’t get anywhere near that, but keeping 40 adult pandas with each getting a large enclosure has the Center needing more room.

In the panda house, the first thing Anna and I did (after we signed our “if you die, that’s not our fault” forms) was give the pandas their morning treat – apples.  Mei Lin was sleeping and the Old Lady doesn’t get any apples (she’s on a special diet of eggs, baby formula and panda cake).  We skipped Ko Be and went straight to the teenagers.  We were instructed to give each of them 5 pieces of apple.  Easier said than done!  We were under strict “No Touching the Pandas” orders, so we were given a short bamboo stick.  The quartered apples go on the end and then to the pandas. Since you just have to hold the stick out and wait for the panda to take the apple, we started a hilarious melee amongst the 6 teenagers.  2 of them were very docile, rarely moving at all to take their piece of apple.  2 others, however, were apple fiends and would stop at nothing to steal the apple pieces of their fellow pandas.  Watching these cute, hilarious bears climb all over one another, reaching for our apple pieces had Anna and I in tears.

Not the traditional kind of food fight.

After feeding Ko Be his apples, we donned aprons and headed outside to tend to Mei Lin’s yard.  Ever the diva, Mei Lin was still sleeping the day away in her inside, air-conditioned cage while we entered her outdoor enclosure and removed yesterday’s bamboo.  After 2 huge loads, we brought in a bunch of fresh bamboo and placed it in concealed PVC-lined holes in the ground.  “So it looks natural,” proclaimed Bao.  I was put to work with the rake, getting up the last of the discarded bamboo leaves while Anna was assigned the unenviable task of gathering Mei Lin’s poo.  But hey, not many people can say they’ve gathered famous panda poo, can they?

We took a break after the sweaty work and waited on the delivery of panda cake.  Panda cake is a panda’s favorite treat.  It is also an important dietary supplement for pandas in captivity – they fill it with vitamins, in addition to loads of fiber.  We tried some…and we don’t really understand the allure.  It tastes like very grainy bread.  We cut the pandas cakes in two and counted out each pandas portion.  Mei Lin, possibly being partial to American panda cakes, doesn’t like the ones served here and doesn’t get one.  Ko Be gets two, the Old Lady gets one, as do 5 of the teenagers.  One teenager doesn’t like panda cake either.

Feeding the panda cake was much like feeding them apples, though we drew a much larger crowd this time.  The teenagers were especially excited (well, 5 of them), standing up on their hind legs, trying to steal each others cakes.  The Old Lady tried to stand (we were encouraged to keep the cakes up high – reaching is good exercise for pandas), but couldn’t so we just put it directly in her face, again using the stick.

Feeding the pandas with panda cake.

After panda cakes, it was time for lunch.  Anna and I ate alone at the Center’s restaurant, before meeting Bao again for our afternoon session.  We were done with the Restricted Access portion of our program – but we’d still have Bao to guide us and answer questions for the rest of the day.  Mostly, we spent our time watching the cubs (1 years old) playing on a log.  Then on to the nursery, where we saw the newborns (pandas are born from late July to mid-September) including one tiny panda being bottle-fed.

World's most adorable crib.

Then on to the red pandas.  Red pandas aren’t as closely related to pandas as they are to raccoons, but they are native to the same area and sort of look like pandas, so that’s where they got the name.  DNA-wise, they are about 20% related.  Bao didn’t have nearly as much to say about the red pandas.  They aren’t solitary, instead living in groups.  They are very smart, live in trees and are good climbers (as are, incidentally, giant pandas – despite their size and appearance).  The center has about 40 red pandas, living in 3 enclosures.

The Red Panda

We closed our program with a video about panda breeding and a walk through the small Giant Panda museum, which features a photo of Teddy Roosevelt shooting a panda.  Here are some of our favorite panda pictures and some panda facts we learned during our visit.

The gestation period of a panda is 2-3 months.  The babies are born at 1/1000th the size of an adult, then grow incredibly fast.

A mama panda can generally only rear one cub at a time.  But pandas have twins 45% of the time.  So 45% of the time, a baby panda dies.  There are a few (like, 4) known pandas capable of rearing 2 cubs at the same time.  According to Bao, these are very, very famous pandas, though I’ve never heard of them.  But then, he probably hasn’t heard of Tom Brady, so…

The normal lifespan of a species is 5 million years.  Pandas have been around for 8 million years, though no one knows why they’ve survived for so long.

Pandas have the digestive system of a carnivore.  But they eat almost exclusively bamboo (in the wild, adding panda cake and apples in captivity).  This system is highly inefficient – they only absorb 20% of the nutrients in the bamboo.  So they eat for 16 hours per day in the wild and 8-10 hours per day in captivity.  They also spend much of their time sleeping and resting, because any extraneous movement burns calories that it takes a lot of work to replace.  The young pandas are very active until about 1 year old, when they settle down and start sleeping at Anna-like levels.  Adults only expend a lot of energy for mating, which they seldom do.

This is the panda's preferred sitting position. Hilarious. All they need is a beer and a tv remote.


Pandas are great climbers.


Panda bear stare


One of the teenagers, playing in the grass.



  1. cute pandas AND a tom brady reference, love it!

  2. Wow, I think this must have been worth the travel to get there. Thanks for sharing the pics-

  3. I’m envious!! I saw Panda Bears at the zoo in Mexico City in the early 90’s. They were so much fun to watch–it would be a thrill to get to feed them, etc.,

  4. So darn cute…I’m getting you a stuffed Panda for Christmas! Tommy, why did Anna have to clean up the poop???? XOXOXO, Kita

    • I can only do the job I was given.

  5. Very cool

  6. Anna is like a Panda – adorable and loves to sleep. What a special experience!

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