Old Version

Larger Than Life

Pandas seem cuddly. But looking after them is anything but relaxing.

By Yang Zhijie Updated Jun.24

After a minute-long video of a panda persistently clinging to a keeper’s legs went viral online, the seven-month-old panda cub, Qiyi, shot to fame overnight.  

In the clip, despite continued efforts by the keeper to move her from his leg and on to a platform, she scampered back from wherever she was put to clamp herself back in place. Seeing the adorable ups and downs, many netizens commented that taking care of pandas must be a fascinating and enviable job. But panda keeper Chen Bo sees taking care of pandas as being just like taking care of babies which has both roses and thorns.  

Naughty Creatures 
At 8am on the morning of March 5, 2016, Chen arrived at the panda maternity ward of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Chengdu Base), Sichuan Province, and changed into new work clothes. Outside the ward, a separate section for expectant pandas, newborns, and cubs, there are several activity areas surrounded by trees and a wooden platform for pandas to play and sleep on. Even though it was a Friday morning, crowds of tourists were eagerly waiting outside the fence with cameras held high above their heads.

Today the ward is home to 10 adult pandas and nine cubs who are cared for by 10 panda keepers. Chen takes care of two of the creatures who live separately in two rooms but share a play area. Pandas are solitary animals and the two pandas enjoy the outside activity space in turn.  

Chen doesn’t have a Sina Weibo account, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, and it was his colleague who told him that the video clip had been a huge hit online and viewed over 160 million times worldwide. Chen told our reporter that panda cubs grab a keeper’s leg because they want to play with him or her, adding that cubs are always in the mood to play with a person until something better comes along, like a new toy, when they’ll dump you straight away.  

“On that day, when I was planting bamboo in the playground, the cub was there the whole morning and treated me as the new toy. If other people came in at that time, she would have done the same thing [to them],” he said.  

Chen fondly remembers his first day of work at the Chengdu Base. He came to the playground to feed panda cubs but was chased nonstop by two three-year-old cubs. To avoid being bitten, he desperately zigzagged around the playground because he knew pandas are better runners in a straight line. It was a full 10 minutes until Chen had a chance to open the gate and flee.  

Chen’s first duty every day is to clean out the pandas’ enclosures, as in the morning, the floor is scattered with pieces of leftover bamboo and feces. An adult panda with its diet of bamboo can produce 10 kilograms of feces every day though compared with other animals, pandas’ poop is relatively clean with no unpleasant odor.  

Chen said the weight of the feces is important and used by panda keepers to determine whether the previous day’s diet was adequate. A panda can consume more than 60 kilograms of bamboo in a day in three or four sittings. After feeding the pandas their main diet of bamboo, keepers will give them some snacks including bamboo shoots and apples as well as nutritional supplements made of corn, beans, oats and vegetable oil that are delivered to the playground at 11am every day.  

Chen said pandas are fond of lying on the ground after they eat and a key task for panda keepers is to exercise them, for example to have the pandas sit down and raise their forelegs. Sometimes, a ball or something that smells interesting is given to pandas for them to explore.  

Wu Kongju, director of the animal management department at the Chengdu Base, said when taking a sample of panda blood, pandas are required to stand upright and hold the platform in the way they have been taught with spoken commands. She said pandas are very clever and like to repeat a movement once they know that the right move will be rewarded. “It’s a result of the long-term intensive training,” she said.  

Zhang Hao, another panda keeper, told our reporter that they have to decorate pandas’ rooms and playgrounds as close to the natural environment as possible to make them feel more relaxed and comfortable. In each room, a wooden horse seems somewhat out of keeping but is used to train pandas’ sense of balance. In addition, bamboo is erected in the playground for them to eat in order to imitate their natural environment.  

Human Nanny 
After a day’s work, panda keepers have to record the nursing records every evening including pandas’ eating habits, mental condition and their feces before producing a comprehensive review.  

From early March to the end of April is the breeding time for pandas, and also the busiest time for their keepers. During this period, the most experienced keepers will be selected from the total of 60 staff to take care of pregnant pandas and cubs. The first three months of life is a crucial period for new-born pandas and a keeper has to look after cubs 24 hours a day.  

It is also important to take care of mother pandas after they give birth. Wild pandas do not eat for the first month after giving birth causing great harm to their health. Pandas in captivity, however, are fed regularly to ensure their bodies recover quickly.  

Chen said that several years ago when he became a panda keeper, there was a dire shortage of staff. And during the breeding period, he sometimes had to work continuously for 23 hours a day and it was common for him to live in the breeding center for three months at a time. But nowadays, he said, there are more panda keepers who have become increasingly experienced.  

According to the job alert published on the website of the center, the first requirement for becoming a panda keeper is a “junior college degree related to animal and animal medical care.” Wu said because of the popularity of pandas among the public, there are a growing number of applicants each year.

Zhang Hao studied animal medicine at school. The first day when he became a panda keeper, he was delighted to see the adorable creature face to face. Like other keepers when they have just started the job, he found it hard to tell the pandas apart as most of them look the same. With help from senior keepers and a lot of observation, Zhang began to be able to tell the difference.  

When Dai Shan was still in college, she was captivated by pandas during a visit to the Chengdu Base and she decided to become a panda keeper. The first time she touched a panda during work, however, she was a little disappointed because their fur is much coarser than that of cats and they are not as docile as they appear.  

As a matter of fact, pandas are aggressive creatures and the strength of their bite is second only to polar bears. They can run fast in mountainous areas at altitudes over 2,000 meters above sea level. Zhang warned that it is actually a deeply unpleasant experience to be hugged by an adult panda.  

Most panda keepers at the breeding center are single children themselves and grew up accustomed to being doted on. But their work is to take care of pandas, and they have to make the role reversal quickly. Panda keepers are not allowed to switch off their cell phones when off duty and it is not rare for them to be called up during the early hours when a panda is close to going into labor.  

“The work is easy to begin with, but it requires a wide range of professional knowledge which takes many years to build up,” Dai said. She added that panda keepers earn only an average salary, and it is not very competitive. Most keepers, she said, took the job out of interest and treat their work rationally.  

“It is a personal choice for panda keepers to join, stay or leave. What visitors care about most is the adorable appearance of pandas, and what we care about most is their health, mental wellbeing and behavior, which requires a professional attitude,” Zhang added.