Monday, May 13, 2013

Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center and "Panda Cuddling"

A trip to Chengdu has been high on the priority list since we knew we were moving to China for one big, adorable reason...the pandas!  I will share more about our wonderful long weekend in Chengdu but without further ado, here is a review (and photos) of the morning spent at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center.

The center is easy enough to do on your own and you can catch a taxi or bus out to the outskirts of town where the center is located (don't let the driver convince you that you need to hire him for the day because you won't get a taxi back...not true).  There is a small admission fee, but we had hired a guide for the day who already had the tickets in hand and had reserved our "cuddling experience".  The center is very well maintained with beautiful grounds, so it is nice to walk around and enjoy, but we hurried on our way to make sure we got a glimpse of the babies at their most active (plan to get up early and arrive by 8:30 for morning feeding and play).
Our guide took us via the quickest route to the see some of the "teenagers" during feeding time while they are active and playful (and before the heat of the day when they usually go inside).  They were busy chowing down when we arrived.
"I'm making a mess of myself but I don't care, this stuff is delicious"
They are a lot of fun to watch as they play with eat, play with each other, climb and lie about lazily.

The babies were having fun in the "panda kindergarten" where Mao Mao, the ultimate mother has been chosen to stay with and nurture them as they grow.  Certain panda Moms shine, and apparently Mao Mao is such a Mom so she has been responsible for this group of babies with help from the keepers.

This little rascal was all over Mao Mao and wouldn't give her a moment's peace.  Ahh...a Mom's work is never done.
A couple times she looked irritated with the constant energy of the baby, but in the end the bear hug says it all.
After many years of difficulty breeding (you probably remember some of the heartbreaking stories and baby's deaths from the early captive pandas), the researchers have learned a lot so that many babies are now born and survive in captivity.  Pandas are fascinating from an evolutionary/survival perspective (I won't bore you with all the facts, suffice it to say I read two long books before the trip and hung on every word from our guide) and there are many delicate factors in the breeding and initial nursing/raising.

When we went to the panda holding experience, we got to see a video of one of the newborn babies and feel an item of similar weight.  They are basically like tiny little rats when born and very helpless.  About 50% of the births are twins and in the wild, the mother must choose one baby to raise as she cannot possibly keep both alive.  In the breeding center, it's a combination of surrogate Moms like Mao Mao who excel at nurturing and the keepers assisting to nurse the babies in to their teen years and then in to adulthood when they are primarily solitary animals (in the wild, they rarely come in to contact other than the one time/year during breeding season).

In the wild, they spend almost all their time in the process of eating (foraging for bamboo and then eating it) and sleep the remainder of the time.  Bamboo provides little energy for them and requires a lot of energy to digest so they're in a constant cycle of finding food, eating and resting.  In the center, they get a more varied diet and of course, don't have to hunt for their food.  So, life is a tough mixture of eating, playing and sleeping.  And they are professional sleepers:

This tree looks like a great place for a nap.
Bet you can't do this...zzzz...
The adults are more likely to sleep in conventional spots.  The babies feel  much safer in the trees so they tend to sleep there.  Our guide said they do sometimes fall but only because they don't realize how much they have grown and a branch breaks.  He said they get very mad at the tree when that happens.
We had a lot of fun watching this playful guy, who was in one of the cool indoor areas (where they usually go by mid-day and spend most of the hotter months).  Our guide said he is almost always playful.  He is definitely determined to develop his climbing skills, despite tumbling off his "gymnasium" several times.
"This time I'm really going to do it."

"Look at me!"

"Well, this isn't working out so well..."
We also played "'spot the panda" several times as we tried to locate the napping or climbing pandas.
Panda rear end
The center also houses red pandas, the giant pandas' semi-related cousin who looks more cat or fox-like.  They get a lot less attention and admittedly, don't have quite the same appeal.  But, it was interesting that though there were some fences up, the red pandas could walk through holes to come out on the walkways and you could really be up close and personal (of course you were warned not to mess with them).
We decided against disturbing his nap.
Whatcha lookin at?
There are a lot more photos of these photogenic creatures and the grounds, which you can check out on our photo album site (Chengdu album), but now on to the best part....the panda "cuddling" experience.  Or being a "panda nurse"/keeper...

Each morning, a select group (actually 3 small groups of about 10 each) get to hold a baby panda. You give a fairly hefty donation fee for a couple minutes with the panda on your lap and accompanying photos (and various swag such as sweatshirts, frame, DVD).  The experience has been in such high demand, they have exponentially raised the donation fee as they cannot really handle more demand.  For me, it was so worth the money (we actually both decided to do it once there--it is one of those once in a lifetime experiences, though I'd go back again)!

They give you a little educational presentation about the pandas before you go in to the sunshine nursery.  There you go through the motions of "preparing their food" by splitting some bamboo stalks (more a photo opp and way of organizing the timing of the various groups) before donning your protective gear.  You get suited up in your blue gown, booties and gloves to protect the pandas from your nasty human germs...and the excitement builds.  The baby panda is brought in (I was so excited I neglected to ask his or her name...or whether it was a him or her) and one by one each person gets the chance to hold the panda for a couple minutes as everyone snaps photos.
"Hey there, little fella."

"OK, I'll admit he is pretty cute."
Then I joined in for some pictures together.
Then we had some alone time...

Completely enthralled (me with the panda, him w/the bamboo)
He's holding tight to his bamboo and me to him, as I prepare to  reluctantly pass him along to the next "panda nurse".  What a wonderful day!

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