For my 28th birthday, Shane gave me the most incredible gift. A panda. Yes that is correct, a living, breathing panda. We were in Chengdu, a city in the Sichuan province of China (the epicenter for all things panda) for one specific purpose: TO SEE A PANDA. They have been my favorite animal since I was a little girl (I can’t tell you how frequently I stay up watching videos on the internet when I’m supposed to be sleeping) and they are also my spirit animal (loves to nap, check, loves to eat, check, not graceful, check). So of course, since we were in China, we HAD TO take the once in a lifetime opportunity to go see them in person. We signed up with Dujiangyan Panda Base as volunteer “panda keepers” for the day, meaning we would help the staff who feed them and clean their enclosures. Any chance to get close to a panda, even if that means scooping up some panda poop, sounds good to me! Outfitted in a blue jumpsuit, we joined another couple visiting from Singapore to meet the panda we would be pampering for the day. The real handler called him and the panda ran (waddled) over to his enclosure for his snack. Once safely inside his enclosure, we went into the panda's habitat for our first task, poop patrol. I can report back that, surprisingly, their poop doesn’t smell at all. They eat mainly vegetables and bamboo so their waste was easy to clean up. We also took a load of bamboo shoots, smashed them on the ground and laid them out for the pandas to snack on, replacing the leftover bamboo from their last meal. When we asked why we had to smash the bamboo, we were told that pandas don’t need the bamboo smashed at all but the keepers do it so that their teeth last longer while they’re in captivity. And the reason they have so much leftover bamboo is that pandas have very sensitive noses. If the bamboo doesn’t smell right then they won’t eat it. Spoiled much? The keepers do this about two times a day and source all the bamboo from nearby farmers who exclusively grow bamboo for the panda base.
After poop patrol, we got to hand feed the pandas, which was undoubtedly the most thrilling part of the day. One by one we knelt down to plop a few carrots into the panda's mouth. I’ve never been so close to one before that the experience made me tear up. Cheesy and slightly weird, I know, but these guys are so heavily guarded at zoos that even if you get the chance to get close it’s still behind two barriers. This was so up close and personal that I thought I may pass out from joy. The pandas are conditioned to put their paw out on a small metal table while they are fed their carrot snacks so that when they need shots the vets can go in and administer them and the pandas wouldn’t even feel a thing because they’re so focused on eating. Although the allotted time is brief, we get to hand feed them on two separate occasions and in between you wait around while the pandas snooze it off. In the meantime, the keepers took us around the park to see the other panda enclosures (about 30 in total). From two super playful one-year-old twin pandas, to a three-legged panda named Dai Li who was rescued from the bottom of a cliff after being attacked by numerous predators, to a thirty-year-old panda named Princess who was only into snoozing the day away, they were all adorable. It’s crazy to think that westerners weren’t introduced to these fuzzy black and white creatures until 1930 when a live baby panda was brought to the US as proof. Then the panda-mania ensued and has been going strong until ever since. Now that pandas are off the “endangered” list and instead listed as just ”vulnerable”, there is hope that the pandas bred in captivity will be able to be released into the wild someday.
So all in all, it was the best birthday present of all time. It’s going to be hard for Shane to top that birthday but he’s a creative guy, I’m sure he’ll come up with something even more wonderful. There is another option at the panda base to take a picture with a panda sitting right next to you. As exciting as that sounds, it’s probably not good for you to be actually touching the panda, the whole experience only lasts for about 20 seconds and it costs $300. Pretty steep just for a selfie. Although we had to work to get our time with a panda, the whole day was certainly not hard, we learned some interesting tidbits of info, and best of all we were in close proximity to them all day. Truly worth picking up some panda poop.
NOTES: Dujiangyan Panda Base is a different facility then the more famous and conveniently located Chengdu Panda Research Base. Dujiangyan is further outside of town and more difficult to get to, but as of right now is the only panda facility to offer a "Panda Keeper" program. The most convenient way to get there is to hire a car for the day but it is significantly cheaper to take a train and public bus like we did. Just catch the high-speed train from Chengdu North Railway Station to Quingshengshan Station and then take public bus 102 for a few minutes to reach the base.