First in Service News

Panda Keeper for a Day

First job-1“Love at first sight” would best describe my first panda encounter.

I recently spent time in Chengdu, China, home of the Great Panda. Most tourists come here to see the pandas in their natural habitat at one of several breeding centers. I chose the new Dujianyan Panda Research Center, which is the only one to allow visitors to be volunteer panda keepers for the day. I couldn’t wait.

The center is in the scenic countryside of Dujiangyan, 90 minutes from Chengdu by car. The program begins at 9 am. Upon arrival, the center instructor Ms. Yang greeted me promptly. We briefly went over safety instructions. I changed into the blue uniform I was given and we were off. A shuttle bus took us to the top of a hill where the scent of fresh bamboo filled the clean mountain air.

That’s when I spotted “my” panda Duo Duo, an inquisitive 9-year-old adult female. She was already waiting by the cage bars for her breakfast. Breakfast consisted of 50 lbs. of bamboo stalks. My job was to clean her feeding area outside and carry in the loads of bamboo for her meal. The official keeper then broke down the stalks, separating the leaves and rods into various piles for her buffet. She was then led outside for her meal. And while she feasted, I swept up her den.

After our hearty workout, Ms. Yang and I took a leisurely stroll down the winding woodland path to visit the other residents. About 30 pandas live in the center. During morning feeding, each one was seated in a private breakfast area, like people in the park, concentrating on eating the bamboo.

The design of the facility reminded me of a traditional mountain village. Each panda has his/her own house with a big back yard full of trees and natural structures to motivate them to exercise. Their environment is in full harmony with their green surroundings. Needless to say, the feng shui here is top notch!

After sharing a delicious lunch with the staff (included in the program), we went to the kitchen to prepare the next meal. It was snack time and pandas love nutritional cake. I couldn’t wait to deliver them to Duo Duo back at her home. As I timidly held out the first piece of cake to this large bear behind the bars, Ms. Yang urged me on: “Look into her eyes!”

And that’s when the best part of the day happened. Duo Duo and I just locked eyes, and watching her baby-like innocent stare melted my heart.

- Kathy Chou is an F1S Asia specialist and panda lover

Panda 2Planning Your Visit:

  • Volunteers need a recent health form signed by a physician.
  • The center does not accept individual volunteers but we can help you arrange exceptions. Groups are accepted, but it is best to have F1S coordinate.
  • Plan months in advance if you are visiting during peak season: June – August.

 

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