What the Po?

Saving the giant panda species from extinction has been one of the most expensive animal conservation programs in the world to date. Most likely you’ve seen these furry bears in a zoo nearby, but if you’re ever in the panda’s native homeland of China, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding will probably come up on your black and white radar.

Like most outdoor excursions, good weather plays an important role. As a heads up, if you find yourself at the research base on a very hot day, it’ll be really hard to catch a glimpse of the main attraction – well at least not outside anyways.

Normally the pandas can stay outdoors in designated enclosures. On days when it feels like you’re cooking in a hot pot, they have to be kept inside cooler facilities (or houses as the research base calls them).

The purpose of the park is primarily devoted to the research and conservation of giant pandas. Fully aware of this, I was looking forward to getting a chance to see the widespread extent of their efforts, and to learn about the work that has been put forth into this ongoing cause.

Unfortunately, as a visitor, I quickly realized that you don’t get to actually witness anything behind the scenes. Instead, I felt like I was part of a larger than Po tourist gimmick – one that pulled the dumplings out of you at the expense of the pandas. Honestly, it seemed as if the park was more focused on merchandising and expanding gift shops. This, in turn, completely overshadowed their ability to care for these lovable creatures properly. For starters, the buildings/houses that the giant pandas stayed in resembled a gallery of unkempt concrete prison cells. From what I witnessed, there were a variety of blocks with more than a few pandas crammed into it. Others had sections as small as large closets. I even saw some adult bears kept in solitairy confinement behind caged bars – surrounded by their own urine and feces. The animals appeared well fed, however, as seen by the piles of bamboo shoots littering the ground. Even so, the state of the rooms were a disgusting mixture of bamboo and panda waste.

Furthermore, the houses showed little evidence that they were tended to regularly. Given that there was a lack of clean space, the pandas pretty much ate, laid, and slept all over and even directly in their own filth. Apart from the sanitary state of the giant pandas, the hygiene of some of the smaller red pandas looked to be in even worst shape. Most of the red pandas were still outside in their enclosures – even though it was made apparent that it was too hot for the giant pandas to be out. A few of them were covered with sores, while the tails of others seemed to have been either bitten or mauled on. This left them exposed with big, festering wounds that seemed to be rotting in the blistering heat.

In short, the conditions in which the animals were kept will always resonate as being both appalling and questionable. I also noticed very little staff around. Despite this, there ended up being one and only one redeeming highlight of the research park – to see the panda cubs in their nurseries. They were definitely some of the cutest and cuddliest creatures I’d ever laid eyes on. I just hope that for their sake, the Chengdu Research Base will devote more of those millions of dollars to improving the care and well being of the animals that they so adamantly promote.

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2 thoughts on “What the Po?

  1. Harold, I think you might want to write a heads-up piece with the photos and send it in to the Washington Post — since we’ve raised and sent some beloved pandas back to the Chengdu Reserve, people here would like to know about this, especially as the US pays China for the privilege of having pandas here at the National Zoo. What you’ve witnessed needs to be reported publicly. Or, even send this blog with a cover note to the Post. This is truly dismaying.

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    1. Thanks for your input Linda. It really was disappointing to see the kind of environment these guys were in. They’re a national icon, and I just felt that they should have been in cleaner facilities. What’s more, compared to the massive size of the park, the enclosures themselves were not very big. I didn’t know about the relationship the US has with the pandas and will be following up after this piece.

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